Moving the boundaries

Observations on Macedonia

In 1993 I received a letter so bizarrely addressed I felt compelled to keep it. Despatched through the Bureau de Poste Macédonie, it arrived emblazoned with the stamp: "Recognised by Greece as FYROM. Macedonia does not exist." The sender had mischievously addressed it to me in Athens, "Freece".

The row over the name of Greece's northern neighbour has smouldered on, flaring with a vengeance in the run-up to the Nato summit early this month.

As passions soared, so did the insults: on the eve of the summit, billboards of Greek flags defaced with a swastika sprouted up across Skopje, the tiny landlocked state's capital. Caricatures of a chubby-cheeked Kostas Karamanlis, the Greek prime minister, dressed as a Nazi SS officer, also appeared in the local media.

But why do the Greeks insist on calling the multi-ethnic country above them the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom, and its two-million-strong population Fyromian, when the former Yugoslavia disintegrated long ago? After all, if there is a Macedonian language, there can surely be a Macedonian people and a Macedonian state.

But Athens doesn't see it that way. Not only is it blocking Macedonia's membership of Nato until the name row is resolved, it has since threatened, again, to use its right of veto to stop the former communist nation joining the European Union later this year.

The message is that, until the Fyromians accept a composite name that denotes their geographical designation (such as "Upper Macedonia)", Athens will veto their joining any club.

This being the Balkans, the origins of the problem go way back (though not actually to Alexander the Great, even if the Greeks were thoroughly riled after Fyrom named its international airport after the soldier king).

From 1944, when Tito designated the area formerly known as "southern Serbia" the People's Republic of Macedonia, Greece has contended that the nomenclature conveys thinly disguised territorial claims on its own northern province of Macedonia, whose "Hellenism" it says has been indisputable for more than three millennia.

Such perceived irredentism became very real during Greece's bloody civil war of 1946-49, when Tito, with the help of slavophone Greek communists, attempted to create a Greater Macedonia that would have included the warm-water port of Salonica, much coveted by Stalin.

In more recent times, the land-grab fears have been reinvigorated by textbooks, maps, articles and even banknotes depicting the former republic expanding into Greek-held "Aegean Macedonia".

In February, Skopje's prime minister was photographed, under a map that portrayed the state stretching to Salonica, laying a wreath at the tomb of Gotse Delchev, a 19th-century freedom fighter widely seen as the progenitor of modern Macedonia.

Politicians in Athens privately concede that the row is absurd but they know that Macedonia could be a make-or-break issue for any government. The ruling conservatives (with a one-seat majority) have already agreed to accept a "compound" name. Previously, Greeks had indicated that they would not countenance the neighbouring state bearing a title which included the M-word.

Nobody, today, really believes that impoverished Macedonia would invade Greece, the Balkans' pre-eminent EU member state.

But in a region where borders have a habit of changing, and Kosovo's recent declaration of independence has awakened territorial fears, the Greeks have drawn a line - the kind of line that has always spawned troubles in the Balkans.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back

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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.