2012: a dismal year to be a republican

It has been a slam-dunk year of success for the House of Windsor.

If some Machiavellian palace official is working off a strategic grid, making carefully-crafted announcements designed to maximise support for Britain’s ancien regime they couldn’t have planned yesterday's developments any better.

The news that a royal child is on the way tops out a dismal year for po-faced republicans. 2012 has unquestionably become the year of enforced patriotism and a firebreak for declining support for the monarchy, with four out of five of us now supporting its retention.

A strained insistence to join in and be part of it all has come in waves this year. First it was the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Next it was the European Football Championships. Then the London Olympics. Now it’s the royal baby. Even stalwart republicans have to concede they are on the wrong side of public opinion and in mortal danger of sounding like mean-spirited elitists. Precisely the criticism we usually level against the monarchy.

So what is a republican to do? Some of this phenomenon is quickly explainable. The jubilee was an extension of the Royal Wedding fever from last year, while admiration of the Queen as dedicated public official transcends the divide between those who take a 16th century view that kings and queens are best placed to rule us and those us who hold to the new-fangled 18th century view that they are not.

Meanwhile this summer’s twin sporting leviathans: the European Football Championships and the Olympics are golden calves for our post-religious, post-political society to worship over. The lure of tribal sports-spectating (clearly not actually playing given our problems with obesity) is now our national religion. It makes offering fealty to monarchs look positively modern.

So here we are at the end of 2012, a slam-dunk year of success for the House of Windsor, with grateful subjects falling over themselves to embrace a neo-patriotism of public-emoting, vicariousness, tribalism and sentimentality.

All we cynical republicans can hope is that surly anti-celebrity Bradley Wiggins can win Sports Personality of the Year.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge try cookies as they visit a night shelter in Cambridge. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.