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15 February 2017

First Thoughts: Why old people won’t downsize

... and the folly of the anti-Trump elite. 

By Peter Wilby

Whatever may persuade Donald Trump to change his increasingly alarming ways – and Theresa May to withdraw her offer of a state visit to the UK – I am fairly certain it will not be round-robin letters signed by Bianca Jagger, Brian Eno, Lily Allen, Ed Miliband, Ken Loach and assorted others. The Guardian ran three such letters, with a combined total of 134 signatories including MPs, union leaders, academics and doctors, on a single day recently. Such folk are “dismayed and shocked”, one letter proclaims. Another, from the medics, claims that “our pledge to do no harm obliges us to speak up”.

In reality, these letters could do a deal of harm, as they strengthen the argument of Trump and his supporters that their opponents are members of an overpaid, effete, middle-class elite. Given that perhaps 95 per cent of Guardian readers (online and in print) already think Trump is a bad egg, the signatories are merely, as their right-wing critics would say, signalling virtue to each other. I would be more impressed if round-robin organisers went to Sunderland to rally the unemployed and poorly paid. They and their equivalents in Detroit are the chief sources of support for “populists”, whether it’s Trump or Nigel Farage and other Brexiteers, and only when they are convinced they are mistaken will the tide be turned.


Staying put

Though the phrase is most often associated with Margaret Thatcher, “home-owning democracy” (originally “property-owning democracy”) resonated through my 1950s childhood. It was invented by Anthony Eden and was constantly on the lips of his successor, Harold Macmillan. “So you’re becoming a property-owning democrat,” a friend teased me, a vociferous socialist, when I bought my first house in the 1970s. For the post-1945 Conservative Party, the owner-occupied house played the role that free health care played for Labour.

The political consequences of Sajid Javid’s housing white paper, implicitly accepting that buying a house will remain impossible for millions, could therefore be more far-reaching than the Tories imagine. Work once provided the narrative of people’s lives, giving the sense of continuity and belonging that human beings crave. As working lives became more insecure, disjointed and unfulfilling, the family home – improving it, furnishing it, paying off the mortgage – took over. For many people, a house that they can pass on to their children is the main achievement of their lives. That is why Javid’s hopes of persuading old people to release housing space by downsizing are likely to be frustrated.

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Mail motive

When the BBC’s Newsnight informed us that it “understood” David Cameron lobbied the Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere to sack the paper’s editor, Paul Dacre, over his support for Brexit, the words “cui bono?” popped into my head. Whether or not the claim is true, one wonders who spoke to Newsnight and why. Newspapers are running a fierce campaign against government proposals for implementing the Leveson report’s recommendations on press regulation. The Mail in particular argues that politicians cannot be trusted with any role, however distant, in regulating newspapers and their contents. Need we look further for the source of the story?


Posh captains

The captaincy of the England cricket team, from which Alastair Cook has stepped down, is treated as though it were a great office of state. Joe Root has long been the heir apparent. Whereas the Australians would get on with it and appoint him, the English wait while it is established that the Yorkshireman has the strength of character and “leadership qualities” to take on the burden.

Such qualities were once associated with those categorised as “Gentlemen” or “amateurs” (though many were paid as much as “Players” or professionals). “Amateurs” of mediocre ability, who would not otherwise command their places in the team, were ­often appointed as captains. This practice persisted even after amateur status was abolished in 1962. The cricket establishment still looked instinctively for an upper-class chap with a public-school education. As late as 1988, Chris Cowdrey, educated at Tonbridge (founded 1553), was made captain, though he had played only five Tests without conspicuous success, none of them in the previous three years. His single Test in charge ended in heavy defeat with Cowdrey himself scoring 0 and 5.

Root went to a Sheffield comprehensive but moved to Worksop College on a cricket scholarship at 15. Worksop isn’t ancient or particularly posh but it charges fees. So that’s all right, just about.


All the same

To the Garrick Theatre in London, where my wife and I see James Graham’s excellent This House, set in the House of Commons whips’ offices during the late 1970s. The similarities between now and the 1970s – hung parliaments, referendums on the EU, unexpected party leadership changes – have been widely noted. Yet, watching the play, I was more struck by the differences.

The 1970s was the last decade in which Labour and Tory MPs, albeit to a diminishing extent, represented rival tribes. Bob Mellish, one of the Labour whips portrayed in the play, was a docker’s son. Walter Harrison, another whip, was an electrician by trade. Of the Tory whips on stage, Humphrey Atkins was the son of an Indian army officer, while Bernard (“Jack”) Weatherill worked for his family’s tailoring firm in Savile Row. The play shows class antagonisms but also, as each side knew and understood what the other stood for, a wary respect.

Today, lawyers and former political aides feature prominently among the whips for both parties. The most common complaint against politicians now is that “they’re all the same”. That was sometimes said in the 1970s, too, but far less often. This House reminds us why. 

This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine