Released without charge: Gerry Adams with Northern Ireland's deputy FM Martin McGuinness on 4 May. Photo: Getty
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Arresting Gerry Adams, the problem with Venezuela, and beating poverty… with maths

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

What was the point of the Northern Ireland police arresting and holding Gerry Adams for four days over a murder that happened 42 years ago? A conviction would be impossible to obtain. Using a Diplock court (sitting without a jury) would be unthinkable for such a high-profile case. Few potential witnesses would be willing to give evidence and few jurors willing to convict, either because they regard Adams as a liberation hero or because they still fear the IRA. Mainland press commentators who insist “justice” must be done forget that justice is always elusive in a divided society where paramilitary gangs are never far below the surface.

Tony Blair’s peace with the Provisional IRA was a fudge and perhaps a necessary one. Hardline republicans will stick with democratic politics as long as they think it works for them. If it ever ceases to do so, the IRA – or a “rebel” offshoot, which is what the Provisional IRA was in the first place – will reappear. “We haven’t gone away, you know,” a Belfast rally was told after Adams’s arrest. That understanding has underpinned the province’s affairs for 16 years.

There was never a formal amnesty, only a series of nods and winks. Paramilitaries on both sides could do as they pleased in sectarian working-class ghettos. But Northern Ireland’s middle classes could get on with their shopping while business could make profits without inconvenience from bombs. So that’s all right – for the time being. 

Shapps goes Caracas

Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, accuses Ed Miliband of favouring “Venezuelan-style rent controls”. I don’t deny there are arguments against controls. But why doesn’t Shapps – who, I suspect, knows even less than I do about housing in Caracas – make those arguments instead of namechecking Venezuela as though that settled the matter? That country is now scarcely mentioned, even in the centre-left press, without words such as “dictatorship” and “tyranny” lurking nearby. Tory papers and politicians bracket it with the likes of North Korea, Iran and Syria. Although it is far from perfect, Venezuela regularly hovers around mid-table in most indices of democracy and human rights. It is singled out because its government is among the few that is recognisably socialist.

What Shapps probably had in mind was a new law that forces some private landlords to sell to their tenants at a “fair price” determined by the government. Which reminds me of the Right to Buy policy that the Tories forced on local council landlords. 

Everybody hates Tony

Et tu, Philip? The Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens, one of Tony Blair’s more respectful biographers, wrote a startling column the other day about the former PM’s “single-minded, almost manic, quest for personal riches”. Stephens has always argued that Blair’s intentions in Iraq were honourable and still thinks he was “a better prime minister than history will probably allow”. But he now says no other political leader has been so “diligent . . . in the sullying of his own reputation”. He accuses Blair – who recently called for the west to ally with Russia and China against Islamists – of “ahistorical and simplistic analysis”.

It is a measure of Blair’s fall that even the judicious Stephens holds him in such contempt. Some Labour people still call themselves Blairites but it will soon rival Stalinist or Maoist as a label to be avoided.

A problem halved

Rejoice. Global poverty – defined as the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day – has nearly halved, from 19.7 per cent to 11.2 per cent. Moreover, this fall happened overnight, just the other day. How? Not, alas, because some hedge-fund manager hired helicopters to drop dollar bills across Africa and Asia but because the World Bank has recalculated. Instead of using currency exchange rates, it has switched to purchasing power parity – which tells you what $1.25 will buy in different countries. Goods are usually cheaper in poor countries so a little goes a long way and, as the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles, puts it, “Many of the world’s poor are not as destitute as we had imagined.” That is a convenient conclusion for the World Bank, a body that imposes “structural adjustment” on developing countries, meaning less welfare and fewer public services.

Jurassic snark

My old friend Simon Heffer, trailing his new book, Simply English, writes in the Daily Mail: “To describe someone with outdated attitudes or opinions as a dinosaur is now a cliché.” It presumably wasn’t a year ago, when Heffer, commenting on an NS interview with the Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, wrote: “The roar of the dinosaur . . . echoes again.”

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Photo: Getty Images
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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.