Bombs, Boris and Ms Booth
Will the housing benefit cut “cleanse” London of its poor? Also, terror alerts, control orders and t
My guess is that what Boris Johnson calls the "cleansing" of the poor from central London as a result of the government's cuts in housing benefit won't be on anything like the scale that has been widely forecast. It is a fairly safe rule that the disasters most widely predicted never happen. Instead, something unexpected ruins lives and destabilises governments. Hardly anybody foresaw the riots caused by the poll tax or that sub-prime mortgages would threaten high-street banks with insolvency. The coalition may well be right when it argues that the main losers from its housing benefit cuts - setting rates at 20 per cent below the local market median rather than on the median itself and capping payments at £400 a week - will be the landlords. As a third of private tenants receive benefits, the level of allowances more or less determines the level of rents. In effect, taxpayers have been pumping £20bn a year into the housing market, inflating rents and, indeed, house prices. Landlords say they won't cut rents but they would, wouldn't they?
Nevertheless, some poor people are bound to be hit badly by the cumulative effect of the government's various restrictions on benefits and, whatever the outcome, they will suffer fear and anxiety. The simpler and more humane solution is to reintroduce rent controls, which David Lloyd George started in 1915 and the Tories abolished in the 1980s. We shall be told that controls would be an unthinkable interference with the market. Yet New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC are among the US cities that have rent controls, mainly to prevent the loss of key workers. France, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain all have controls in various forms. The Global Property Guide has a helpful table for property investors that lists which countries are "pro-tenant" and which are "pro-landlord". The US is in the former category. In the latter, the UK is in the happy company of China, Iran, Syria and Belize.
Another area where predictions of disaster rarely come to pass is terrorism. I don't know about you, but I usually feel safer when the US and British authorities issue one of their "imminent attack" warnings, and, if they reckon tourist landmarks are the targets, my instinct is to hasten to a tourist landmark. Whatever happened to those nuclear devices that Islamists were supposedly ready to chuck around in big cities? Or to the Mumbai-style attacks that would soon hit the west? The latter have become an excuse (if we believe the Sunday Times) to create paramilitary police squads armed with machine-guns, which, I suppose, may come in useful if demonstrations against cuts get out of hand. But nobody was prepared for explosive devices placed in printer cartridges posted from Yemen. The government's response was to ban the postingof cartridges, though we can be sure that the next attack won't be in the form of a printer cartridge. Perhaps armed police will shepherd us all into underground bunkers whenever a plane carrying freight passes overhead. A high proportion of terrorist attacks fail, but that doesn't matter to the terrorists. Knowing how western politicians react, they can expect normal social and economic activity eventually to be suffocated, so that the only safe thing to do is to stay at home.
Out of orders
One also feels confident that the recipients of control orders - now the subject of an internal coalition row between Lib Dems and Tories - are not a significant threat to anybody. Given the numbers who have absconded or whose orders have been struck down by the courts, we would long ago have been murdered in our beds if these people were as dangerous as the powers that be claim.
The 2009 graduate employment figures, published this month, show that the university subjects with the highest jobless proportion - 16.3 per cent - are IT and computer science. Physicists and engineers, with 11-12 per cent out of work, don't do much better. By contrast, less than 10 per cent of last year's English, history and sociology graduates are unemployed. So why did the Browne report propose, and the government apparently accept, that only science and engineering courses should receive continued public subsidy? The figures are admittedly distorted by the high numbers of arts and social science graduates who continue to further study or training. But it is interesting that one of the highest rates for finding a job - 65.1 per cent - is recorded by graduates in that much-reviled subject, media studies.
Contemplating former New Statesman contributors, I cannot decide which of Ann Widdecombe and Lauren Booth is making the greater fool of herself. Many readers expressed surprise that Widdecombe should appear so frequently under my editorship. But though I deplore most of her political views, she struck me as a woman of admirably independent and contrarian mind who refused to play to the gallery and bravely defied modish opinion. I can't, however, think of anything more modish than allowing yourself to be flung around a dance floor for the pleasure of the masses
As for Booth, I told her I didn't give her a column because she was Cherie Blair's half-sister so I'd better stick with that. But her journalistic technique, it seemed to me, was to put forward views that would cause maximum embarrassment to the Blairs. This time, she's got it wrong. Though a relative converting to Islam after a "holy experience" in Iran might once have bothered them, Cherie's eBay sales and certain passages in Tony's memoirs suggest they long ago passed beyond embarrassment.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005