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Cardinal errors

Observations on sainthood

They haven’t found a body and the number of confirmed miracles is one short. But despite these apparently insurmountable obstacles, Cardinal Newman is on course to be elevated to sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI within the next year. English Catholics are understandably gratified that the Church of England convert, who died in 1890, is poised to be the country’s first 21st-century saint.

The first miracle is in the bag. A theological panel set up by the Vatican has agreed unanimously that the unexplained healing of an American man bent double by a severe spinal disorder was the result of prayers directed to Newman. The panel spent six months examining the case of 69-year-old Jack Sullivan, a deacon from Marshfield, Massachusetts, after a group of doctors concluded that they had no scientific explanation for his recovery.

But before the cardinal receives his notional wings and halo, evidence of a second miracle will be required. And if past experience is anything to go by, it will not be easy to find.

More than a decade ago supporters of the cardinal’s beatification at his old base, the Birmingham Oratory, were jubilant to find that a local man – a devout Catholic – had petitioned Cardinal Newman in heaven for a cure to his inoperable cancer. His prayers, apparently, were answered. His tumours disappeared and he recovered.

The Oratorians went through the lengthy and tedious process of verifying the miracle, and the Vatican was poised to approve. But then, much to the Oratorians’ chagrin, the miracle man walked in front of a bus and was killed. Theologically, the miracle was cancelled out. He may have had his cancer cured, but his sudden, unexpected and tragic death undid all the lobbying and verification.

As one priest at the Oratory put it: “It is almost impossible to have a miracle verified in this country.

In predominantly Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, and in South America, doctors have no hesitation in endorsing the sudden disappearance of potentially fatal conditions as miracles. Here, doctors describe them as being in remission. That is why the loss of our miracle was particularly galling.” It is notable that the single miracle on Cardinal Newman’s record came from abroad.

The chances of uncovering a second miracle before Pope Benedict XVI accepts Gordon Brown’s invitation to visit Britain next year look slim. Still, the Pope is apparently an admirer of Newman, a former Protestant vicar who converted and was made a cardinal in 1879 by Leo XIII. And while not as enthusiastic as his predecessor John Paul II, who created a record number of saints, Benedict seems determined to elevate Newman.

He has even overlooked another requirement for canonisation: theological law requires the existence of a body – proof that potential saints were once living beings. When Newman’s grave was opened so that his remains could be moved to the Birmingham Oratory, absolutely nothing of his mortal body was found, not even his teeth. All that remained were the brass handles of his coffin and some rotting tassels from his cardinal’s hat. Not much to go on really.

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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.