Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Welcome to a new beginning

Dumfries greeted the new millennium as peacefully and as enthusiastically as the big hot spots - with music, dancing and ogling at fireworks. I was at our own traditional street party, though it was slightly grander than usual: more fizz and glitter. I, too, had the silver nail polish and a little pot of face glitter ready when, at the suggestion that I was about to varnish my nails, my five-year-old daughter produced her own fireworks.

"No you're not! I'll hate you! I won't stand beside you! I'm not coming!" I explained it was only a bit of fun, but was told conclusively, "Daddies don't do that!" So we compromised and I celebrated the millennium with my right-hand nails silvered and my left as nature and my daughter intended: a situation that in retrospect I now see suited my ambivalence as I bid adieu to the 20th century.

Born in 1950, I have always felt the 20th century was my century in a way the 21st cannot conceivably be. Between imagination and reality, I spanned it. Throughout my early childhood the second world war was a constant presence in the games we played and in our parents' talk of blackouts, digging for victory and Churchill. It was common to come across boys whose fathers or uncles had killed Hitler. And, through the immediacy of the second world war, we became aware of the first, which seemed to us devoid of personalities or meaning but came to haunt us nonetheless.

The second half of the century has, of course, been where I have lived my life - in a world still coming to terms with the ideas of Darwin and Freud. Nineteenth-century works such as Moby Dick and The Hunting of the Snark also expressed, in metaphor, a new sense of the nothingness their writers apprehended. Ahab's chase for the Great White Nothing pulled him into an abyss explored in our century by writers who focused on the absurd and by nihilists such as Beckett. It is a hole we still require to be filled with meaning, and if not with meaning then with sensation. The parlour game of lists suggested a belief that all the evidence was in, yet how much of what constitutes these endless numberings will survive the lip of the new century? Rather, they will simply reflect the tastes of a bygone age.

Yet, for all its doubts, the language of the old century has been only briefly the Language of Silence; mostly it has been one of swagger - Look what we've done! How far we've come! What we're capable of doing! However, in his summation of The Seventies, Christopher Booker fingered that decade as the most significant in human history because he claimed it was the first to show that Progress could not be pursued comprehensively. The dream of unlimited power, for example, came at the cost of a legacy of nuclear waste. Certainly all our advances - nuclear power, cloning, the net - have brought with them their own set of moral questions, and these are questions that affect us all; for though it may please some commentators to mention certain strange-sounding (to them) places as the epitome of parochialism, Don Gifford in The Farther Shore, published way back in 1990, coined the phrase "the edgeless universe" to reflect the new global realities. Technology has ensured that we all live "suburban lives".

The Inuit talk not of facing the future but of backing into it, on the grounds that the past is what we can see; we are blind to the future. Now we, who have been so wise after the event, who questioned the imperial arrogance with which the last century, at least in European parts, began, arrive blinking into a new century, not knowing how much of it we will see; or whether we will be patronised at its end for being the equivalent of quaint Georgians, hubristic Titanic passengers, instigators or witnesses of dreadful conflicts. "Pah," someone is bound to say, "they thought computers were a big deal!"

Gordon Brown has begun the new millennium with some old-fashioned charity in the cancellation of debt owed by the poorest countries of the developing world. This century might also begin with some old-fashioned humility. For its coming has brought home to "b 1950" a keen awareness that we are all transients in history. With chipped and flaking varnish, I greet the new century warmly: for what I will see of it, for my children and for their children, and in the fresh belief that beginnings not ends should be our obsessions.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing

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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

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