Hail to the new nakedness! A glimpse of bare flesh tells us that a person has nothing to hide

In the Macedonian refugee camps, the Kosovars are still reeling. They had never seen anything like it - a VIP dressed in an open-neck shirt. When the Balkan top brass move about their spheres of influence, they respect the dress code of the Soviet bloc apparatchik: dark suits, white shirts, dark sunglasses. Here instead was Tony Blair, self-appointed saviour of the Kosovars and first among equals in the allied camp, revealing an expanse of bare flesh. The poor interpreter was at a loss for words and failed to translate Blair's unbuttoned look for the people in the tents. Back home, though, we had no problem decoding the sartorial detail: Tony's flash of chest is part of the new nakedness that has become a trademark of our new Britain.

This is not mere voyeurism of the "show us a bit of leg, luv" variety. No, the new nakedness is a challenge to show us who you really are. We've had it with secrets, double entendres, machinations and all those games people of influence play; we're deaf to the weasel words in pretty speeches and holier-than-thou sermons - we've been had for too long by too many.

The only way to win our trust now is to reveal yourself. Not that we want the indecent exposure of the confessional spiel; we suspect that all those tear-soaked and televised tales of woe we were privy to, courtesy of Diana and Oprah and Vanessa, were emotionally draining attempts to manipulate us and that they delivered nothing but the vicarious thrill of watching someone else's private misery. Instead we are looking for some discreet physical exposure - a glimpse of skin, a peep of flesh - that doesn't provide titillation but underlines transparency. We want men and women whose decollete or next-to-nothing garb proclaims that what you see is what you get. Hence our enthusiasm for the braless Charlie Dimmock; for the Tatler shoots of professionals (novelists, historians and television presenters) in their birthday suits; and for Tony's nude torso. Casting off the bra and unbuttoning the shirt have become shorthand for honesty: it's difficult to fudge (unless we're talking body doubles or retouched photographs) when bits of your private parts are on show.

This (nearly) nakedness doesn't just promise honesty. It hints at intimacy and delivers access. It is difficult to be haughty and distant, or to shut down communications or end connections when you are showing your uncupped breasts or your hairy chest. You may not be making yourself available, but you are certainly making yourself approachable - and suddenly vulnerable. Yesterday's men, hermetically sealed in their buttoned-to-the-gills look, kept their distance by giving nothing away. They conveyed their undisputed authority by adhering to the strict and rigid uniform of the professional. Every gesture seemed reined in and every bulge was hidden by their tailored cover-up; we suspected a multitude of sins inside the clothes.

The apostles of the new nakedness have traded in this disciplined and status-conscious look for a looser and unstructured fashion: they are suddenly within reach. Stripping off, albeit only partially, has dented their authority but emphasised their authenticity.

Which was why Tony went down such a treat among the Kosovars: he was not the power- monger but the honest broker. And why Charlie is such a hit with the Ground Force audience: her tips on topsoil look like they stem from real-life experience rather than a gardening encyclopaedia.

The new nakedness is not just about being laid-back and forgoing the pedestal that was once the prerogative of the VIP. It conveys our new priorities: access and authenticity above authority. We want the people we look up to - whether it be the Prime Minister or the telly gardener - to bare it all because they have nothing to hide.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes

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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.