Class conscious

I've just seen the West End revival of Tom Stoppard's play, The Real Thing, in which a clever writer called Henry worries about revealing his incongruously downmarket musical tastes on Desert Island Discs. He agonises that a man who's written a play telling the existentialists where they went wrong shouldn't let on that he spends half his life listening to "Da-Doo-Ron-Ron".

I was reminded of my teenage years in the 1970s, when I assumed that at any moment I would suddenly grow out of pop music, at which point I would also become definitively middle class. Meanwhile, invited in my mock A-level general paper to write about "an artist I admired", I produced an essay describing Keith Richards as "sublime". Almost all of it was simply crossed out by the examiner.

But The Real Thing first appeared in 1982, and by then high and low culture were starting to blur, and intellectual snobbery directed at pop music was actually an increasingly marginal trait. A few years after that, I was writing reviews for Q Magazine, and the features editor would say things like: "We think you've slightly misread the new Pat Benatar album." Today, I turn on Radio 3 and there always seem to be bespectacled postgrads whispering reverently about Bob Dylan (well, they sound bespectacled).

As for social snobbery regarding pop music . . . it, surely, has long been impossible. I live in Highgate, and the unquestioned aristocrats of the place, spoken of with deference by all the tweedy ladies and silver-haired gentlemen, are Sting and Annie Lennox. But that's only fitting, given that we have an electric guitar- playing Prime Minister, given that old rock 'n' rollers are sirs, and that Mick Jagger is the number one country house guest.

I have two sons and both seem interested in pop. I've been trying to interest them in the music of the Beatles, which they do seem to enjoy, but they see the Fab Four primarily as a benchmark of success and wealth. If we drive through some new town, they'll ask: "Could Paul McCartney buy this town? Could Ringo Starr?" It goes without saying that I shall be passing on my own rudimentary guitar-playing skills as soon as their little fingers can grasp a fretboard.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control

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.