As my child ran to the shops, a bomb exploded

Get off at Brixton Underground station on a Saturday afternoon, as I have done thousands of times in the past 25 years. As you climb the stairs you will see, at the top, Magic, a rasta man, plying joss sticks, as if they were coming out of his ears. Another black man offers flowers; he shifts to umbrellas if the rain is falling, or to some other commodity appropriate to mood and moment. Another rasta, permanently in his cups, darts backwards and forwards, a pirate radio station on the move, pumping out everything from Bob Marley to the latest in hip-hop. In and out weave brothers from the Nation of Islam, offering Final Call, their weekly newspaper published in Chicago.

A white preacher invokes hell and damnation if we do not turn to the Lord. Turn left and another group of Muslims, this time the Ansaris in their pristine white skull caps, offer a range of joss sticks as well as a limited number of tracts, calling the wayward to be saved by Allah. Meanwhile, there is a lot of shoving and pushing, beggars and thieves, visitors seeking bargains, stallholders chanting. A cacophony of entrepreneurial sound fills the air. Those who have left for quieter south London suburbs return on a Saturday to meet friends, to chase bargains, to visit the barber. Jelly Baby, the world's biggest kleptomaniac, walks through the crowd on tiptoe pilfering this and that from the unsuspecting.

For 50 years, slowly and joyfully, sometimes riotously, Caribbeans have built this atmosphere, adding variety in cuisine, in fashion, in music, in the whole cultural range. And more recently the voices and sounds of Africa and many other lands (including Yugoslavia) have joined in so that inner Brixton now boasts more than 70 languages.

Iceland supermarket, in the heart of the shopping centre, caters for those on lower incomes. The shop assistants are black, the security officers are black, the customers are black. Five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon is prime time for bargain hunters. And it was at that time and in that place that somebody arranged for a nail bomb to explode on 17 April. He or she or they must have known that blacks were likely to be the main victims.

To me, it was close, very close. Mrs Howe had sent the bairns to Iceland to get the last of Saturday's shopping - washing-up liquid, detergent and other household cleaning materials. They come extraordinarily cheap at Iceland, I am told. Zoe was reluctant (she always is), so it was Amiri who was on his way when the explosion shook the earth beneath his tiny feet. He returned at full pelt. "A bomb, Dad. A bomb."

I was gathering bits and pieces for a journey to East Anglia, there to explore an Anglo-Saxon village, attend an English Orthodox church service, stand on the spot where St Felix, their patron saint, landed, pre-1066, and converse under the gaze of the camera with the Old Companions, a group that claims to have its roots in the time prior to the arrival of the Normans. I was intending to seek out Englishness as national identity and frankly I could not separate my thoughts about that from the bomb blast.

This is ethnic cleansing time, national identity time. A bomb is a bomb is a bomb, whether from the remoteness of a stealth bomber or from a sports bag on the pavement in Brixton. Combat 18, the neo-Nazi group, has claimed responsibility for the bomb outside Iceland. The police got a call from a phone box close to where Stephen Lawrence was murdered. Certainly, from the moment the bomb exploded, we black Brixtonians all felt that the far right was responsible, though we cannot rule out the Serbs. Ethnic cleansers both.

An uneasy calm has descended on our community. A greater sense of "we" is developing - police and citizen, black and white, as we keep our eyes peeled for any parcel or holdall. Under siege? Not quite. But Brixton attracts thousands from outside its boundaries, adding vibrancy to its life and bringing much needed dosh to the local economy. I hope they keep coming.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie

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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.