The political event of the year? Floods

Ah, the rituals of autumn. From Hallowe'en, with its amoral conversion of the nation's children into tiny bandits threatening trick or treat; to Bonfire Night, which seems to extend a cracking, thumping ten days either side of 5 November itself; and in politics, the autumn statement, now renamed the pre-Budget statement, with its promises of jam for some, dry bread for others; and finally, the Queen's Speech, endlessly delayed this year. Yet the most important political event is none of the above - not even Gordon Brown's statement, still awaited as the NS went to press. If you want something that asks big questions of our political system, it is surely the floods.

Although some still dispute it, the vast majority of scientists have come to the conclusion that the freak weather is caused by global warming, which is probably of our own making. As in the days of Noah, it isn't the economy, stupid: the real message is in the rain.

The immediate political response seems almost trivial. Yes, the one and a half million people already affected by the high waters want to know about the flood defences, apparently botched and skimped in the traditional British way. Yes, the storms will have an impact on the insurance industry and on our premiums. Yes, ministers must look again at a planning strategy that has put so many new houses on the vulnerable flood plains. But none of that really matters beside the larger question: can a world dominated by consumerist democracies deal with the causes of global warming?

The answer so far is: probably not. Look at it this way. In former times, it was the monarch who visited the scene of major disasters to dole out concern, shake hands and shrug sympathetically; the politicians then had to get on with the tougher, more prosaic tasks of asking where policy had failed, and changing tack. But with these floods, it was Tony Blair who donned a raincoat, helicoptered in to the waterlogged towns and expressed a sort of helpless sympathy for the flood victims. In the very vaguest way, he acknowledged that it all might have something to tell us about how we live our lives - but he seemed more like Edward VIII on a visit to coalminers than an energised politician.

Meanwhile, who was it who actually came up with the hard-edged, front-page-grabbing political analysis? Surprise, surprise, Prince Charles, who can err towards the nutty; on this, however, he is surely right.

He says he is in no doubt that the severe storms are the consequences of "mankind's arrogant disregard of the delicate balance of nature". You do not need to agree with all of his agenda to accept that it has been Charles, more than the government, who has thought long term and concluded that, without a radical change in our energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, the great experiment with the earth's climate will go on.

As most moderate environmentalists would accept, this government has been no worse than its predecessors. On carbon emissions, on tax breaks for energy efficiency and so on, it has given a little. Blair struggles to get on top of the science and brings in people like Jonathon Porritt. John Prescott says all the right things about wake-up calls, although his transport policy hardly suggests he has woken up. And in Michael Meacher, Labour boasts probably the most intelligent environment minister Britain has ever had.

Yet environmental issues still flutter around the edge of new Labour. When such issues are in competition with faster growth targets, more cars and ever greater consumer choice, they do not even register. They are decoration, and no more. Our political culture has been changed not one jot by global warming, and probably won't be, even after several years of more storms, floods, erosion and battered coastal towns. After all, the fish have all but disappeared - and has that led to a big rethink of fishing policy?

Parliamentary politics, like any other system, is at its most active when things come down to self-preservation. Different MPs may be good at different things, but what they are all best at is thinking about and plotting for their own survival. With four- or five-year parliaments, and the hungry press, which constantly push the latest in consumerism and are paid for by corporate power, it is not really surprising that long-term issues such as global warming just don't bite. The bizarre result is that, in a week when we have seen what is presumably only the beginning of the havoc to be wreaked on us by our "reckless disregard of nature", the main political debate in this country has been about whether fuel taxes should be lowered and, if not, what other measures can be taken to help the motorist.

Bizarre, but perhaps not surprising. One Cabinet minister I spoke to recently about the government's troubles blamed the "call-centre culture": we have become so so used to phoning helplines and demanding instant solutions that we cannot see beyond our immediate problems.

True, no doubt; but the historians will not remember Brown's pre-Budget statement of 2000. It is these floods, part of the bigger picture, that they will recall. The great test of democratic politics is not the euro or regional government, or even a penny on or off taxes, but whether or not these bigger, harder challenges are ever confronted. Doing so would require a government that wasn't frightened of not being re-elected, led by someone of the intelligence, energy and youth to see the long-term threats, facing an opposition too discredited to get in the way.

That sounds rather like new Labour in 1997. It was probably our best chance of ever getting a government that was serious about the big green agenda - and it didn't really bother. For millions of people, flooded homes could well become just another of autumn's rituals.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture

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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.