In this week's New Statesman: Will Europe ever go to war again?

T.G. Otte on why we have learned nothing from the First World War. PLUS: Olivier Roy on the myth of the Islamist winter and the News Photos of the Year 2012.

In the New Statesman’s leader this week, we address Leveson, the press and transparency. The public debate post-Leveson has been “dominated by the threat that any implementation of his central recommendations might pose to the principle of free speech” and with far less emphasis on “the best way to protect members of the public from the kind of offences that the Leveson process exposed”.

An “ad hoc” meeting of news editors at 10 Downing Street (from which Private Eye, the Observer, the New Statesman and others were omitted) has done little to move the debate towards a fair and unbiased perspective on industry reform:

The awkward truth for all concerned is that the press is a shrinking corner of the media landscape. So many of our newspapers are losing tens of millions in income each year. There are urgent debates to be had about the protection of free speech, the boundaries of acceptable discourse and what constitutes invasion of privacy – online. The clubbable disquisitions of newspaper editors are as relevant to the moral and legal challenges thrown up by the digital revolution as the concerns of monasteries were when the printing press threatened their monopoly on scripture.

What matters most in this case is not the system the editors’ club conveniently devises to let itself off the hook of statutory regulation but the perception that the process is honest, transparent and driven by respect for victims of press abuse as well as the principle of free expression.

In our second leader, the NS applauds “how much has changed” since David Cameron voted in favour of a ban on “promoting” homosexuality in schools in 2003:

Perhaps no other piece of legislation introduced by Mr Cameron’s government will do more to promote human happiness. At a time of economic misery, that is something to celebrate.


T.G. Otte: The great carnage

The historian and former Foreign Office adviser T. G. Otte writes a sweeping analysis that considering the nature and consequences of the First World War and the tensions within Europe present then, and now. The fraught posturing of politicians in 1914 may seem familiar to many of us today — but have we failed to learn our “broader lesson” from the war? He begins:

The announcement of the government’s plans for a programme of events to commemorate the First World War is welcome, not least because policymakers should know and understand the nature and consequences of conflict. To learn any broader “les­sons”, it is necessary to re-examine what led to the war. It is tempting to look for large causes, given that July 1914 started a chain reaction that led to two world wars and a European “civil war” that lasted until 1989/91. But, in doing so, historians often paint a picture of an inevitable conflict, of Europe reaching boiling point and then exploding violently. That would be the wrong lesson . . .

The decision-makers of 1914 could not know their future any more than we can know ours. It is therefore important to appreciate the elements of risk and uncertainty their calculations contained. International crises generate their own dynamic and internal logic, of which events are both cause and consequence – and it is here that 1914 offers lessons.


Olivier Roy: The myth of the Islamist winter

The prolific author and expert on political Islam Olivier Roy, writing for the NS this week, debunks the myth of an “Islamist winter”. In a bilateral discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the al-Nahda government in Tunisia, Roy asserts that the spirit of protest which gripped the two nations throughout the Arab spring “is not about to be extinguished”. Far from being an “Islamic revolution”, Roy says, the current state of government in the Arab world is rather “a coalition that is con­servative in politics and morals but neoliberal in economics”, and one that bows to a newly empowered public:

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the Islamists who came to power through the ballot box are seeing their popularity erode and are tempted to hold on to power by recourse to authoritarian measures. But they have to deal with the legacy of the Arab spring. They face a new political culture: now, one where people who disagree with the government take to the streets; where there is no reverence for established power and the army and the police no longer inspire fear.

Morsi’s success on the international stage has encouraged him to flex his muscles at home. But Morsi has gone too far too fast in his attempt to reinforce the power of the presidency at the expense of a judicial apparatus that was able to retain a degree of autonomy under Hosni Mubarak. And his failure to anticipate and understand the strength of public opinion has made things worse.

What is more, society [in Tunisia] has absorbed the culture of protest more deeply than in Egypt. At the local level, demonstrations and riots against the government are common currency... The Islamists can use old techniques (treating their political opponents as “traitors”, introducing censorship, martial law or a state of emergency), but this won’t prevent the people from calling them to account.


Photo Special: The Best News Images of 2012

In a special feature in this week’s magazine, the New Statesman brings together the year’s best news photography. From the highs of the London Olympics and Barack Obama’s re-election to the lows of civil war in Syria and Libya, to the voices of courageous women such as Malala Yousafzai and Pussy Riot, who made their protests “heard in the face of terror and oppression” – this was 2012. Curated by Rebecca McClelland and with an introduction by Sophie Elmhirst.

(A Libyan man looks out from his ruined apartment in Ajdabiyah, destroyed by heavy shelling during the Libyan civil war. PHOTO: Yuri Kozyrev Noor Images)




Rafael Behr: Forget the lib-lab pact, Clegg's current position suits the opposition perfectly

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes on cross-party political allegiances: “There is nothing new in political rivals teaming up to achieve their goals.” On the Leveson report, Nick Clegg finds himself closer to Ed Miliband, but he cannot be seen to jump ship from the Conservative coalition just yet, whether on this matter or others:


. . . the Lib Dems are pushing coalition as an attractive and stable system of government. That requires getting to the end of the parliament with a chest full of gleaming policy trophies. Prematurely flouncing away from power is not in the plan.

 “We can’t be seen to be throwing off the fiscal straitjacket at the first opportunity,” says a Lib Dem strategist of the party’s dilemma. “Nor can we stand at the next election in a position where people can say, ‘They have exactly the same platform as the Tories.’


Laurie Penny: The urge to "save" women from selling sex is little more than puritanism

For “In the Red” this week, Laurie Penny argues in favour of decriminalising sex work, lambasting the “treacherous stream of public opinion” that has seen the debate over the sex trade usurped by “neo-Victorian” lobbyists and the public, rather than the voice of those within the industry. Penny writes that legislation is more often “designed to protect the middle classes from the more ‘unsavoury’ elements of the community” than to protect sex workers effectively. It is a class, even a gender, issue:


Their stories [those of female and male sex workers] are often very different from the simple tale of victimhood told by anti-sex-trade campaigners. The voices and opinions of sex workers, however, are usually silenced in “mainstream” debates about prostitution.

The elements of class suspicion at work here shouldn’t have to be spelled out. When “nice” women with regular incomes take a stand to deny the agency and attack the morality of people working in precarious conditions, what else are we supposed to call it?

For groups such as the European Women’s Lobby, prostitution is always male violence against women – so the many men who work as prostitutes don’t really count. Sexually conservative feminists have never seemed anxious to save male sex workers. It’s as if there were a sort of “prejudging” going on. It’s almost like – what’s the word? Oh, yes. Prejudice.


In the Critics

In the Critics section of this week's magazine, Simon Kuper, author most recently of The Football Men, reviews Tout seul, the memoir of the former French national coach Raymond Domenech. None of the stars of the French game – Zinédine Zidane, Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribéry, to name just four – emerges unscathed.

Also in the Critics:

David Herman reviews In Two Minds, Kate Bassett’s biography of Jonathan Miller

Lesley Chamberlain on Benoît Peeters’s biography of Jacques Derrida

Leo Robson reviews Both Flesh and Not, a posthumous collection of essays by David Foster Wallace

Philip Maughan talks to the crime writer Val McDermid

Architect Amanda Levete charts the progress of her firm's scheme for a new gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

Ryan Gilbey reviews The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey

For this and more read our "In the Critics this week" feature on Cultural Capital.


Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at:

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Has Brexit burst the British housing bubble?

The fall in value of the pound is having a negative impact on property prices.

The high cost of housing in the UK has almost nothing to do with supply and demand. What matters is political control. Rents are high because landlords have gained the upper hand politically. The consequences are vividly illustrated in Ken Loach’s new film focusing on inequality in Britain, I’ Daniel Blake.  As a student in the 1980s I paid £9 a week to rent a room in a shared house in Newcastle upon Tyne. Private rent was low because for decades before then rents had been regulated. It was the lifting of that regulation that meant rents could rise so that now students have to borrow vast sums of money just to have a place to live. Today’s students pay many multiples more in rent than I ever did, and millions of families with children are also struggling because they have to rent privately.

Because rents have been allowed to rise as high as landlords can get away with, the landlords have been encouraged to buy up more and more properties that were once social housing or lived in by a family, who had bought the property with a mortgage. The number of people renting privately doubled between the last two censuses of 2001 and 2011. That has never happened before. It was the end result of years of deregulation and the withdrawal of our government from representing our interests in housing. Well-regulated private renting is a benefit, but without rent regulation it becomes a social evil.

Housing prices are not determined by supply and demand because you do not have a choice about needing to be housed. Allow an unregulated market to develop when social housing is also being cut and there is no choice not to buy what is on offer, other than sleeping on the streets. Prices will go sky-high. The purchase prices for mortgage borrowers also rise to astronomical levels as first-time buyers are competing with landlords to buy properties, and so have to be able to secure a mortgage equal to the amount a landlords can wring out of people desperate for a home.

In the first blog in this series on affordable housing published by Taxpayers Against Poverty, Stephen Hill, director of C2O Futureplanners, explained: “There are over one million less affordable homes than there were in 1980. The population has grown by nearly nine million people. Incomes at the median level are flat, and secure employment is increasingly scarce.” He is correct, but the situation is even worse than that — it is not lack of housing that is the problem. Each annual census in the UK records the amount of housing that exists at each point in time. It does this by recording the number of rooms in homes over a certain size. The number of rooms per person has risen at every census since 1981.

The 2011 census was the first to count bedrooms and found that in England and Wales there were 66 million for a population of 55 million (21 million of whom were married or in a civil partnership). So even if we make the ludicrous assumption that only married people share a bed and no children use bunk-beds, there were at least 22 million bedrooms empty on census night 2011. We have not been building a huge number of new houses or flats in recent years, but we have been adding extensions on to our existing homes and so we now have more housing than we have ever had before, per person and per family. We just share it out more unfairly than we have ever done before.

If housing prices were about supply and demand then our surplus of bedrooms would result in falling prices, but this is not a free market. You are not free to buy a flat that has been left empty in London to appreciate in value by its owner. They do not want to sell, or sometimes even rent it out, and you almost certainly would not have the money even if they did.

It is in the housing market that the majority of investments are made in the UK, housing is where most wealth is held. As we become more and more economically unequal it is through housing that we most clearly see that most of us are losers while just a few (who own multiple properties) are winners. Recent UK governments have been allowing wealth and income inequalities to rise and rise.

As Fred Harrison explained in the second blog in this series, government has not only withdrawn from regulating housing rents and profits to avoid this winner-takes-all-economics — it is now even prepared to provide £2bn to buy properties that home builders can’t sell so that they don’t need to lower prices even if landlords and first-time buyers will not buy their properties. The government sees renting-seeking as a social good, and believes that the market in housing should be regulated less and less with each year that passes, other than intervening to keep prices high and rising. Meanwhile, street homelessness rises, evictions rise, the debt of mortgage holders rises, housing prices rise and a small minority of the population become richer. So how will it end?

You might have thought that prices would stop rising when landlords stopped buying properties because the return on their investments in terms of rent would not making it worth their while paying, say, one million pounds for a three-bed house in a part of London near a tube station. Suppose that the most a family could pay was £20,000 a year in rent. The landlord’s “return” on their investment would only be two per cent a year, ignoring wear-and tear and anything else that they might be able to off-set against paying tax. If the forces that were actually at play were “supply and demand” then surely prices have to stop rising when people can no longer afford the rents?

However, landlords have another return: the escalating value of the property itself. If the property is rising by five per cent a year in value then they are making a seven per cent return when they rent it out, even if annual rents are just two per cent of its value. The rise of five per cent a year is due to speculation which is itself partly fed by a belief that the government of the day will do all it can to protect their investments, but it will only do that up to a certain point.

Because it needs to raise taxes a little given the state of the national finances, the UK government is now withdrawing its support of reckless profit taking by smaller landlords. In October 2016 a group of buy-to-let landlords lost their appeal in the courts to try to continue to be able to claim their mortgage interest payments as a business expense. From 2017 only the largest of landlords who set up companies to rent out their properties will be able to continue to do that.

The government knows that the housing market is in trouble. That is why Philip Hammond, the current Chancellor, announced that their “Help to Buy” scheme (which was aimed at the very best-off of potential first time buyers) will end in December 2016. The government knows that with the risk of falling house prices in future it cannot afford the guarantees that “Help to Buy” created. “Help to Buy” schemes were the previous Chancellor, George Osborne’s biggest spending commitment. They were designed to help inflate the housing market and keep prices rising, but eventually every speculative bubble has to burst.

On 21 September the first reports of a stalling market were released under headlines that included: “Q2 UK house sales at an all-time quarterly low says Land Registry”. UK Land Registry figures now show housing prices to have fallen in London by 7% so far in 2016, with the number of sales roughly halving. Investors have stopped buying; if a recent investor wants to sell they have to do so at a loss. Nationally prices fell by 4.5%.

So what happened to the magic-money-tree? In short the pound fell in value and it has been continuing to fall ever since the UK voted to leave the EU. There was always going to be “the event” that triggered the end of speculation and it is looking more and more likely as if Brexit was that event. Once the pound begins to fall in value then any overseas investor knows that if they buy property in the UK, even if its value in pounds does not fall, it will be worth less to them in future.

Suddenly UK housing is not a safe asset. Suddenly prospective landlords actually have to try to rely on their tenants’ rent to pay back their borrowings. Suddenly housing prices change despite no great alteration in supply or demand. Suddenly the whole edifice looks unsafe, not just for the majority of young and almost all poor people in Britain, but for the large majority of the population.

It was never “supply and demand” that determined our housing costs and profits. Relying on that belief did not result in greatly improved cheaper housing for most people, but it was easy to claim that somehow tomorrow would be better if we just left it to the market — until we left it to the ever more unregulated market for too long. Housing costs, prices and supply are determined by governments, including those that shirk their responsibilities and have too much concern for the economic fortunes of the affluent few.


This is part of a series of blogs on affordable housing published by Taxpayers Against Poverty. You can read others in the series on their website or sign up to attend their seminar in Parliament on the 16th November here: