Knox’s trial by Dacre, Rio’s own goal and Tory (dis)appointments

Most newspapers thought that, given the paucity of evidence against her, Italian judges were right to acquit Amanda Knox of murdering the British student Meredith Kercher. Not the Daily Mail. "Freed to make a fortune" was its front-page headline and a story inside elaborated on how Knox can look forward to "Hollywood millions and a new life as a professional martyr to injustice". The Mail had scarcely a sympathetic word for a woman in her twenties who spent four years in jail, and expected 26 in all, for a crime she didn't commit.

Why does Knox deserve a fatwa from the Mail and its "editor" Ayatollah Paul Dacre? First, she is American. Second, she is said to have an adventurous approach to sex. Third, after the murder, she was filmed kissing her Italian boyfriend (allegedly her accomplice), thus failing to conform to behavioural norms prescribed by the British press. Fourth, by getting herself acquitted, she has deprived our newspapers of a gift they enjoy only once in a generation: a truly evil, female murderer from a white middle-class background. Unforgivable, really.

Man in the Mirror

Newspapers have one thing to celebrate, however. Rio Ferdinand, the England footballer and former captain, lost his privacy action against the Sunday Mirror over a story about his sex life. But their right to print any old tittle-tattle hasn't been restored. Mr Justice Nicol drew a line in exactly the place it ought to be drawn. Ferdinand, he noted, had given interviews and published an autobiography which stated that, after a wild past, he would now "leave that sort of thing behind" and establish "a stable family life" with his partner (later his wife) and their children. Nicol concluded that "he projected an image of himself and . . . there was a public interest in demonstrating . . . that the image was false".

This appears to mean that married politicians, who rarely fail to drag happy family pictures into their election literature, are fair game. It also appears to confirm that the former Formula One boss Max Mosley, "exposed" by the News of the World for sadomasochistic practices, was entitled to privacy because he had not previously publicised his personal life. Journalists will try to muddy this distinction, but Nicol could hardly have made it clearer.

Killer policy

On the eve of their annual conference, the most exciting policy proposal the Conservatives could manage was to have more of us killed. Ours are among the safest motorways in Europe, killing just 132 people a year. Does it not occur to the Tories - and to their Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, surely the most dangerous man in Britain - that the low casualty rate is a reason for keeping the speed limit as it is, not for increasing it to 80mph? When four people died in a rail crash at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in 2000, the entire rail network came to a near-standstill for weeks. If 132 passengers were killed in a plane crash, would anybody support a reduction in airline safety measures?

According to the Institute of Advanced Motorists, each road death costs the nation £1.79m in health care and lost output, and nobody denies that a higher speed limit would increase deaths by between 5 and 10 per cent. But Hammond apparently regards the present low mortality rate as evidence of national inefficiency and believes we all need to travel more quickly, and die in greater numbers, to kick-start growth. As this appears to be the Tories' only policy for economic stimulus, perhaps we shall end up with a compulsory minimum speed of 100mph. Like soldiers going over the top in the First World War, we shall tear up the M1 knowing that our slaughter is for the national good.

On and Ofsted

I wonder if Michael Wilshaw, shortly to be anointed as head of Ofsted, will turn out as Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, expects. Wilshaw is head of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, a school famed for its academic excellence and disciplinarian ethos, which includes grey blazers, Latin lessons and Saturday-morning detentions.

The Tories have a history of disappointment in what they imagine to be kindred souls. Michael Howard, as home secretary, chose an ex-army officer, David Ramsbotham, to serve as chief inspector of prisons. Ramsbotham later declared himself "appalled" by penal conditions and said at least a third of the inmates should be released. Kenneth Baker, as education secretary, appointed the literature don Brian Cox, an editor of the Black Papers, which began the fight against "the excesses of progressive education", to lead a committee on teaching English. He turned out to be a softie on grammar. I once interviewed Wilshaw, and thought him of sturdily independent mind. I hope he has some unpleasant surprises for Gove, who looks far too pleased with himself.

Pitch invasion

Fears of immigrants taking British jobs by working indecently hard are nothing new. Researching my socialist history of cricket, I came across the following letter, originally published in the Daily Mail in 1896 when K S Ranjitsinhji became the first non-white man to play for England: "The success of an Indian cricketer in England has stirred up the . . . natives . . . four other Indian cricketers . . . are coming to England . . . So where will be our Graces and Stoddarts [then the star English-born players] if our cricket field is invaded by Indians who devote 16 hours a day to specialising with bat and ball?"

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

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 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.