Curiosity or tolerance?

Observations on art and religion

This year Edinburgh was billed "the religion fringe", with a number of plays and comedies dealing with one of the big issues of our time. In recent years the relationship between the arts and religion has been difficult, with disputes over Jerry Springer: the opera and Behzti, when Christians and Sikhs objected respectively to the content of those productions. Perhaps surprisingly, the dominant attitude at the fringe has been one of fascination rather than hostility.

In the strikingly titled We Don't Know Shi'ite, a group of young performers set out in a series of sketches to challenge the audience's and their own preconceptions about Islam. While the focus was on the myths and prejudices thrown up by the "war on terror", it was striking that the group showed none of the scepticism about religion one might expect from young people describing themselves as secular humanists.

Indeed, their attitude might even be considered naive. For example, Muslim attitudes to women and homosexuality were smoothed over, justifications taken at face value. This generosity may be a useful corrective to the sweeping criticism that sometimes prevails, but the group's anxiety not to offend suggested a surprising ambivalence about the value of artistic expression.

Shows dealing with Christianity tended to be more irreverent, with names along the lines of Jesus: the Guantanamo years. But apart from its US-style "fundamentalist" variants, established religion was treated as an object of curiosity rather than as something to be confronted. In the comic play Man and God, the deity was portrayed as a hopeless old duffer whose authority has been undermined since the Crusades, and whose attempts to reassert himself with the aid of spin-doctors accelerate his decline.

Robbed of authority over our lives, religion has long been seen in the arts world as a dangerous illusion or as a mere cultural resource, a global collection of stories and metaphors. Hence, the notion of "the religion fringe".

The most intriguing production extended this curiosity even to the Middle American evangelicals who are so widely disdained on the secular left. In Particularly in the Heartland, the young New York group The Team (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) portrays three Kansas children whose parents have disappeared, apparently taken by the "rapture". The children are joined by the ghost of Bobby Kennedy, who stands in for the thwarted promise of a better America. But it is the kids who give us hope with their wide-eyed credulity. Rather than asking, as did the cultural critic Thomas Frank, "What's the matter with Kansas?", the group finds something universal in the hopes of the children brought up in the heartland of Bush's America.

The humanist cliché is that we can find sustenance in arts rather than naive belief systems, but the reality is more often that we consume culture like anything else. At their best, the arts can still point to something beyond, not by embracing religion on its own terms, but by exploring what it is about it that fascinates people. That is no bad thing. Indeed, religious prejudice is more likely to be challenged by serious engagement than lazy satire.

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.