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The Beeb under fire, drone strikes and small hope for republicans

“Why WERE they left to shiver in rain for 4 hours?” demanded a Daily Mail headline.

Ah, yes, but a day late. The morning after the Thames jubilee pageant, not a single newspaper expressed the slightest concern at the effects of exposing an 86-year-old woman and a man one week short of his 91st birthday to weather conditions that caused 50 people to be treated for hypothermia.

Only after Prince Philip was taken to hospital with a bladder infection did journalists belatedly express their compassion. Which suggests that they and most of the rest of the population, for all their cringing towards royalty, don’t care a coronation cake crumb about Mrs Windsor and her spouse. They are guilty of what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called “a denial of subjectivity”, treating two human beings as things without concern for their feelings and experiences.

Auntie’s blunders

Right-wing newspapers never lose an opportunity to denigrate the BBC, just as they denigrate the NHS and the Church of England, all three being, at least partially, among the few non-market institutions left in Britain. Predictably, they berated the Beeb’s coverage of the Thames pageant. But it was for the wrong reasons, such as the solecism of describing the Queen as Her Royal Highness instead of Her Majesty.

What I found more irritating was that, when the producers weren’t bringing us the non-thoughts of, for example, Fearne Cotton, Matt Baker, Anneka Rice, Sandi Toksvig, Richard E Grant and some boy band I’d never heard of, they had the cameras focused on the Queen and her family. Surely even royalists know what the Queen looks like and can accept that what she is thinking (even about being stranded in the middle of a river during a monsoon) will forever remain a closed book.

As a republican, I watched because I was interested in the spectacle and particularly the ships. I wanted to know more about them, including the role that some played at Dunkirk.

I wanted to know more about the history of the Thames. The BBC offered no more than mere snippets. But perhaps, confronted by royalty, most of the population can do no more than gawp in an incurious stupor.

Droning on

When we hear of civilians being massacred in a faraway country, the cry goes up: Something Must Be Done. After the killing of more than 100 people, half of them thought to be children, in the Syrian town of Houla, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said the situation was “so grave, so serious and so rapidly deteriorating” that no option could be ruled out.

Here is one thing that can be done. The west can itself stop killing children. CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have murdered between 482 and 830 civilians, including 175 children, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Covert US actions in Yemen are responsible for the deaths of between 58 and 138 civilians, including 24 children. True, the US did not walk into children’s homes to shoot them like the Syrian militias. The missiles delivered by the drones can be operated by pressing a button in Nevada. But the children are still dead.

Noble vision

If a eurozone banking union comes about, as now seems possible, it would, as even Angela Merkel acknowledges, entail the final step towards a European federation, in which fiscal policies are run from Brussels just as US fiscal policies are from Washington. Why have so many politicians, Continental as well as British, been in denial about this for so long? It was the goal of the European project from the moment the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of the EU, was proposed in 1950.

The then French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, spelled it out. “The pooling of coal and steel production,” he said, “should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe.”

Schuman was not an eloquent man, nor was pooling coal and steel production a romantic idea. But his aim was the noble one of making another European war impossible and the greatest failure of European politicians for the past 60 years is that, with rare exceptions, they have lost sight of his vision and tried to sell the EU as little more than a device for getting richer.

Human traffic

When the local police gave up parking enforcement and the council delayed taking on the responsibility, Aberystwyth was liberated for 12 months from those most hated of public servants, traffic wardens. The predictable result was that people parked wherever they pleased, bringing traffic to a standstill and motorists to blows. Now the wardens are welcomed back like long-lost friends. I wonder if other towns of similar size could be persuaded to try a year without other reviled public servants, such as health and safety officers. How long would it take before employers dispensed with first aid boxes, properly equipped toilets, drinking water, adequate ventilation, tolerable temperatures, handrails on staircases and other requirements of health and safety legislation? The results of this and similar experiments could create a renewed appreciation, perhaps even among Tory MPs, of the public sector’s merits.

Family silver

After the ball was over, after the break of morn, what hope for republicans? Just a glimmer.

According to Brand Finance (which calls itself “the world’s leading brand valuation consultancy”), the monarchy is worth £44.5bn, with physical assets such as the crown jewels and the palaces valued at £18.1bn. If George Osborne continues to make a mess of the economy, we shall have to sell it off, along with a few uninhabited Scottish islands.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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.