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In this week's magazine | Anxiety nation

A first look at this week's magazine.

Illustration by Lucas Varela with art direction by Erica Weathers.

Anxiety nation: why is modern Britain so ill at ease?

Plus

Rafael Behr on Maria Miller’s resignation and how David Cameron misjudged the public mood

Unfinished business: Jimmy Carter tells John Bew about his crusade for women’s rights

William Dalrymple on the endgame in Afghanistan

Mark Lawson, critic at large, on King Charles III – the most treasonous royal play yet

Jesse Norman remembers Michael Oakeshott: politician, thinker, lover

Stuart Maconie on the “real” Frank Sidebottom

Unfinished business: Jimmy Carter tells John Bew about his crusade for women’s rights

John Bew meets the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international development expert Jimmy Carter to discuss his campaign to stop violence and discrimination against women.

 

In person, Carter is charming, warm and impossible not to like. In Britain we would call him a “national treasure” – a sort of Tony Benn figure, with whom you don’t have to agree in order to respect his integrity. But as one of only three one-term presidents since 1945, Carter exudes the sense of having unfinished business to attend to.

 

The 89-year-old former US leader tells Bew that he became aware of the scale of the problems facing women through the Carter Centre, which he founded in 1982. And he believes that the slave trade in women is bigger now than it was in the 19th century.

 

Is Carter aware of the recent work by William Hague and the British Foreign Office, together with Angelina Jolie, in campaigning against sexual violence in conflict zones? “Absolutely,” he says, and both he and his aide nod vigorously when I mention the forthcoming summit on the subject in London in June. Hague, Carter says in his Georgian drawl, “is an active hero of mine; he and Miss Jolie are doing a successful and admirable job”.

 

Discussing foreign policy, Carter declares Bashar al-Assad one of “the most obdurate individuals I have ever met” and suggests the US government was mistaken to demand the Syrian leader’s resignation as the civil war broke out.

 

Carter also warns that although he believes Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a “special case”, the US and its allies must present a united front to stop further incursions by Moscow.

 

Rafael Behr: the politics column

The delay over Maria Miller’s departure as culture secretary shows David Cameron is a poor judge of public feeling, argues the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, in his column this week.

No 10 invited Miller’s assassins in the press and parliament to desist but failed to erect a bulletproof shield around her. Her resignation exposed Cameron as a slow reader of the mood in his party and the country.

But Behr also points out that Cameron’s continuing reluctance to condemn Miller has much to do with his unease about gender imbalance in the cabinet:

The joke among Tory MPs is that the only way to get promoted in Cameron’s regime is to be an Old Etonian, female or Matt Hancock (the skills minister is a favourite of the Chancellor, as is the new Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid). It is widely suspected that Cameron’s reluctance to surrender Miller owed much to her precious status as one of the few women in the cabinet.

 

Cover story: anxiety nation

As the number of people in the UK with an anxiety disorder reaches three million, Sophie McBain presents the anatomy of an epidemic.

It is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether it’s just our perception of those feelings that is different: are we increasingly viewing ordinary human emotions as marks of mental illness?

If one in seven of us is taking pills to control or ward off anxiety, are we just medicalising an ordinary human emotion? Did the purveyors of the early anti-anxiety medicines such as Miltown – discovered in the 1940s, and the first in a line of blockbuster drugs including Prozac and Xanax – manage to create a new problem along with the solution they offered?

Or maybe the UK’s epidemic of anxiety isn’t pathological at all but a product of historically unprecedented good health and affluence. Perhaps anxiety is a luxury that comes with wealth, freedom and the privilege of having nothing fundamental to fear in our modern society.

 

Mark Lawson on King Charles III

The NS’s critic at large, Mark Lawson, reviews King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s new play at the Almeida Theatre in London, which, unlike such Elizabeth II fictions as The Audience, “enters areas that British patriotism and tact tend to avoid”.

Half a century after [Harold] Wilson fretted about portrayals of the Mountbatten-Windsors on the boards, Bartlett, a 33-year-old whose previous work includes Love, Love, Love and 13, has written the boldest and most provocative play about the royal family in British theatrical history . . .

While the press and public of the second Elizabethan age may approve of [Bartlett’s] view of Charles as a meddling monarch, they may be more startled by the presentation of William and Catherine as baddies. In the most remarkable scene, the ghost of Diana appears to her elder son, who is now Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. If the Lord Chamberlain still policed the stage, Bartlett would be in the Tower. This is the first piece of theatre to treat the royals like any other subject.

Plus

Peter Wilby: Maria Miller proves politicians can’t master the art of contrition

David Patrikarakos reports from eastern Ukraine, where pro-Putin rebels
are waiting for Russia

Veronese at the National Gallery in London: Michael Prodger on the Venetian colourist who abhorred empty canvas

Helen Lewis on the social lives of micro-celebs and hi-tech teens

Will Self spends a week as a flâneur picking out faces in the crowd

Life aquatic: John Burnside on Rachel Carson’s great sea trilogy

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire has all the gossip from Westminster

Caroline Crampton visits the Angela Lansbury Film Festival in east London

The NS tech writer, Ian Steadman, on why the White House might sue Samsung over a selfie

 

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.