Pompous Fifa bosses, Twitter hypocrites and my Ikea trouble

In England, at least, there's more than a touch of self-interested whingeing in the fuss about Fifa, football's international ruling body. The gripe - the rest of the world seems less upset - is that we lost out on the 2018 World Cup because of bribery and corruption. To my mind, the fewer big international sporting events we hold, the better, as the costs nearly always exceed the supposed benefits by many billions of pounds.

That aside, we should get into our heads that inducements are always involved, with bosses of sports bodies being offered the best stadium seats for themselves and friends, rooms in top hotels and sumptuous dinners. We promised suites at the Dorchester during the 2012 Olym­pics to Fifa delegates - until we lost the bid to Russia and told them to find B&Bs in the Old Kent Road instead. The truth is that we lost because we didn't offer enough. Where there's serious profit - as in selling arms to Saudi Arabia - we forget our scruples and pay what's necessary.

The wider question is why so many men's sports are run by people who, if not corrupt, are pompous, quarrelsome and incompetent. Think of the cricket world cups that take so long - presumably to allow the bigwigs to maximise their freebies - that everyone loses interest. My theory is that sports governance attracts people who themselves wish to compete but were never good enough or are now too old. Their frustrations cloud their view of what's best for players and spectators.

Perhaps international sport should be organised by players' co-operatives. That was how Australian cricket tours to England started in the late 19th century. Players selected the teams, appointed captains and managers, raised money for upfront expenses and shared profits. Only after a mighty struggle in the 1900s did the cricketers relinquish control. The Australian boss class took over and, for the next 70 years, treated the players like an industrial proletariat. But those early tourists created one of the most enduring sporting institutions, Anglo-Australian Test matches.

Merger error

Sharon Shoesmith, director of Haringey children's services when Baby P died, has been excoriated for her triumphalist tone after the Appeal Court ruled that Ed Balls, then children's secretary, was wrong to order her summary dismissal. But one aspect has not been widely considered. Shoesmith occupied a new post created by the merger of education and children's social services. This was the result of New Labour legislation and it has been a disaster. Schools used to pick up the phone to warn social services of problem children. Now that they are all under the same giant bureaucracy, teachers have to complete eight-page forms.

More importantly, education is the dominant partner in the new local authority departments, taking most top jobs and setting priorities. That is hardly surprising. Schools are the subject of constant political and public attention. Children's social services stir interest only when a child dies, and not always then. Shoesmith, a successful former head teacher, focused on education, which she knew about, not abused children, which she didn't. That doesn't excuse Haringey's failings, but perhaps Labour politicians could briefly interrupt their denunciations of Shoesmith to admit that the merger they enforced was a mistake. Mergers often make sense on paper, but rarely on the ground. You could merge almost everything in theory: children live in houses and cross roads, so why weren't housing and transport included?

Hate Mail

While we're on the subject of Sharon Shoesmith, I note that Ayatollah Dacre, "editor" of the Daily Mail, has declared a fatwa against her. His writers denounce her almost daily and abuse the Appeal Court judges for supporting a woman who failed to prevent a child's death and, as the Ayatollah rules, lacked sufficient contrition. The court reached its decision on legal grounds, arguing that Shoesmith was denied natural justice. It wasn't judging her morality and character. But ayatollahs apply their own laws.

Moral amazement

As rows about adulterous footballers, injunctions and Twitter continue, newspaper columnists - including my old friend David Aarono­vitch of the Times - debate whether the modern British public is less liberal about sex than we thought. In the blogosphere, they observe, there's an awful lot of indignation and this suggests the "liberal metropolitan elite" is out of touch. The commentators miss the point.

Newspapers have always treated adultery as a crime of biblical wickedness, but journalists, themselves part of the metropolitan elite, are hardly moral paragons. They know that everyone likes gossip about who's shagging whom, and the virtuous stance is a cover. Now almost everyone is a quasi-journalist, blogging and tweeting, and has adopted the same twisted and hypocritical moral code. Has nobody noticed its inherent absurdity? If, as we are told, the concern is that "role models" may set bad examples to the young, we should keep their sexual behaviour secret.

Wire service

Psychologists, it is reported, have discovered a new condition: dyscalculia, which explains why some children can't do arithmetic, just as dyslexia explains why others can't read.

I'm OK at arithmetic but can't wire an electric plug, hammer a nail straight or assemble Ikea furniture. A psychologist once tested me on
visual-spatial skills and advised that, because parts of my brain were in poor working order, I should become a journalist. But he didn't offer any name for my condition and, wishing to take my rightful place among the afflicted, I still seek one. Can anyone help?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

Photo: Getty Images
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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.