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Editor's note: Olympic village life, suburbs of psycho killers and a global jamboree

The Olympics should be a glorious two-week distraction from deeper troubles.

If the BBC – so addicted to over-reporting American news – and Sky bulletins were to be believed over the weekend the single most important news story in the world was the massacre of those cinemagoers in Colorado. Forget events in Syria. Don’t even begin to wonder about what was happening in Germany or China or Africa or Latin America. No, the world’s most newsworthy “story” was the murder of those 12 unfortunates by this latest small-town American psycho. Spree killings have become so routine in the United States, where all good citizens have a constitutional right “to bear arms” and where guns and ammunition can be bought with the ease of fireworks, that they really ought to be ignored by the mainstream British media, because another one will happen soon enough, and then another, and still nothing will be done.

Suburbs of psycho thrillers

American entertainment culture is, on the whole, enthralled by violence, ludicrous hi-tech narratives of catastrophe and the stylised effect. J G Ballard, who understood the disturbed psychopathologies of contemporary culture more acutely perhaps than any other British writer of recent times, once said this to me over a drink at his house in Shepperton in the summer of 1998: “I think that’s where the future is going – a suburban calm coexisting with terrific volatility, as when the local shopping centre is suddenly destroyed by a maniac with a mailorder Kalashnikov.” He would not have been in the least surprised by the Batman killer who emerged from America’s darkest fantasies and began firing bullets as if he were the star of his own video game.

Invincible you

Is Vince Cable on manoeuvres? Unlikely. But his Financial Times interview of 21 July, in which he reasserted his credentials as a social democrat and refused to rule out his interest in becoming leader of the Liberal Democrats (“I wouldn’t exclude it”), was a clear message to his beleaguered party. To decode: Cable is going nowhere and the excitable Tim Farron is not the only serious contender for the leadership as and when Nick Clegg hears that midnight knock of doom on the door, as he surely will before the next general election.

Olympic village life

I thought of Ballard again on Tuesday evening when I was guest at an enjoyable Team GB welcome reception inside the security zone of the Olympic complex at Stratford in east London. I’m not an anti-Olympist, nor can I get too agitated, as the libertarian right has been, about the way the IOC and its corporate fellow travellers have colonised our capital city, curtailed our liberties and bludgeoned all opposition. This is how these supranational organisations work. This is globalisation. I’ve seen it happen before at football World Cups and during the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007, a dismal event during which the ICC, because of its absurd rules and draconian regulations, conspired to strangle local interest in the tournament.

London 2012 should be different. For a start, this global jamboree is taking place in a country that is as enthusiastic about sport as any in the world and in arguably the most multi-ethnic city on earth. It should provide a glorious two-week distraction from deeper troubles. But there will be a fiscal hangover come the autumn and imagination is required if the Olympic Park isn’t to become a Ballardian dystopia of empty stadiums, abandoned swimming pools and desolate shopping malls as happened in Athens after the 2004 Olympics.

Zeroes to heroes

After England performed with such inferior technique at Euro 2012 in June the view hardened that there was something inherently flawed about the English, as if we were physiologically incapable of playing a more refined possession game, an Anglo-Saxon version of tika-taka. Yet there’s no reason why English footballers shouldn’t be the equal in technique and accomplishment of any other national team. What’s absent from the English game is a will to perfection, an efficient master plan and a firstrate coaching infrastructure. If you doubt me I refer you to the way that British track and road cycling has been remade under the fastidious guidance of Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s shaven-headed performance director and general manager of Team Sky. His uncompromising pursuit of excellence reached its apotheosis in the astounding triumphs of Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky in the Tour de France, which ended on 22 July with the Manx flier Mark Cavendish winning the final sprint in Paris for the fourth time. Clive Woodward, England’s World Cup-winning former rugby coach, once said that achieving success in sport is not about the grand gesture but about doing “100 small things 1 per cent better”. Something similar would apply to Brailsford. In a country so hostile to cyclists we endeavour to kill as many as possible on our roads, his achievement is to have transformed what was until quite recently a minority, even eccentric, pursuit into something approaching a national obsession.

No country for bold men

I was told a nice story about Brailsford by someone who worked with him on a book project. Over lunch he once asked Alex Ferguson the secret to managerial success at Manchester United and elsewhere. The reply was direct: “Get rid of all the c***s.”

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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.