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Who needs God, when you have the Muppet Christmas Carol?

Scrooge doesn’t find religion. He finds Christmas. And why should the qualities of generosity and thoughtfulness be the preserve of the God-fearing, says Natalie Haynes.

My final words as he left the flat were, “Don’t buy a giant reindeer head. We don’t have room to store it.” I hardly need to tell you that I am typing this beneath the woolly gaze of a large, felted reindeer head, which now hangs from my living-room wall. When Christmas is over, it’ll have to go under the bed, though I do realise the potential for an inappropriate combination of festive and Godfather overtones some time next year.

I love Christmas, even though I’m not supposed to on two counts. The first is that I’m vegetarian. I’ve been off meat for 25 years, so I am pretty much immune to the look that people give me when they ask what we eat on Christmas Day, as though vegetarianism were on a par with being one of those people who eat only what they can scavenge from skips behind supermarkets, in the hope that capitalism might then fall.

The answer, in case you were too polite to ask, is probably something with chestnuts and cranberries and leeks. And it takes about 20 minutes to cook, so while you are wrestling a turkey into the oven at some hour just before dawn, I’ll be asleep. And, very possibly, drunk.

The second reason I shouldn’t like Christmas is that I am not religious. Not even a tiny bit. I like churches and cathedrals; I even like gods (especially Greek and Roman ones, nasty though they often are) – but I lack faith. That doesn’t quite describe it, because it doesn’t feel like a lack. To me, the story of Christmas is just that – a good story. That doesn’t stop me enjoying it.

My view of what Christmas is about is pretty well summarised by A Christmas Carol. If you’re too busy to head to the bookshelf, I suggest a trip to the cinema: The Muppet Christmas Carol is rereleased this year to celebrate the film’s 20th birthday. For my money, it’s the finest adaptation of Dickens ever made.

Michael Caine has never given a more beautiful performance than he does as Scrooge. He bellows at Kermit, Beaker and the carol-singing rabbit with all the fury of an unrepentant miser. Then his eyes mist up as he sees his embittering past, his unloved present.

Caine’s Scrooge doesn’t sing like a singer; he sings like a man who’s lost the ability to love. That might leave you dry-eyed but it has me weeping like a girl. Scrooge is a man elevated by Christmas, once the ghosts have reminded him what it’s really about, which is kindness.

Spirit level

Christmas, in the world of Dickens (as played by the Great Gonzo, obviously, with Rizzo the Rat to keep him company), is a time when we remember how lucky we are and try to make other people feel the same way, either through gifts or simply by being kinder.

It is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that finally converts Scrooge. He has to see the future and how the world will continue after his death to understand fully what Christmas has to offer him: the chance for redemption. And it’s not any suggestion of hell or damnation that terrifies him – it’s the thought of being unlamented when he’s gone. It’s this world that Scrooge’s spirits show him, not another.

He eventually realises that Christmas isn’t a day; it’s a state of mind. His final promise to the last spirit is a comprehensive one: “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, the present and the future.”

It’s because of this that I see A Christmas Carol as a humanist text, in essence. Scrooge does go to church on Christmas Day after his night-time conversion from misanthrope to good man, but it takes up less than a sentence of the book. (And none of the film. Perhaps it’s for the best – the church might not approve of the marriage between pig and frog.)

Scrooge doesn’t find religion. He finds Christmas. And why should the qualities of generosity and thoughtfulness be the preserve of the God-fearing?

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.