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Sixty years of Attenborough through the eyes of the New Statesman

For more than half a century, the magazine has followed the broadcaster's work.

Read the New Statesman's most recent interview with David Attenborough, by Brian Cox and Robin Ince, here.

For almost 60 years, New Statesman critics have attempted to put into words the effect of seeing David Attenborough in his native habitat: the wild. “Attenborough is a lively, floor-pacing, arm-swinging magic lantern man, deftly imitating by turns a harassed traffic policeman, a Nonconformist minister searching for the clinching analogy and a district nurse on a bicycle,” wrote his fellow BBC grandee Dennis Potter in 1974.

It was Tom Driberg, in 1954, who first introduced NS readers to the “highly successful TV ‘personality’, whose casual, conversational manner conceals a deliberately studied technique”. When Jack Lester, curator of London Zoo’s reptile house, fell ill, Attenborough, then a producer, stood in to present the BBC2 series Zoo Quest. “In comparison with [him],” Driberg wrote, “many of the old troupers from the regular entertainment world seem intolerably brassy and two-dimensional.”

Following the groundbreaking Life on Earth (1979), Julian Barnes seemed somewhat perplexed to see the presenter squatting low behind a wall, observing the religious rituals of Indonesians in Spirit of Asia (1980). “This may be a productive style for creeping up on things we think we know too well and over-despise, like animals; indeed, part of the deserved success of Life on Earth derived directly from Attenborough’s guileless mixture of reverence and zeal. But the last episode of Life – which presented humans as if they were merely an advanced breed of problem-solving beast – was the least satisfactory, and in retrospect it’s easier to see why. People – unless they’re fossilised or preserved in peat, and enlivened with some label like protocrotojurassic – aren’t really Attenborough’s thing.”

After a blissfully quiet, though unfulfilling, stint as controller of BBC2 – “I asked what the policy should be, and they said: ‘That’s up to you, dear boy. You tell us’” – Attenborough became an outspoken critic of reforms to the licence-fee model. “The changes at the BBC are all market forces and marketing,” he told Mary Riddell in 1998. “Gets up my nose a bit, [and] I do have a frisson of despair at the standards.”

He still voices concern for the corporation. “It is crucially important for our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I’m appalled anybody thinks otherwise. If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade,” he told Sophie Elmhirst in 2011. But Attenborough, now 86, has recently taken to speaking out about a far more serious problem, that of overpopulation. Writing in the NS in April, Attenborough spoke with uncharacteristic force about ecosystems ruined by the arrival of man. “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”


Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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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.