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20 November 2020

Marcus Rashford and the “wrong kind” of homeowner

Attacking left-wingers for owning big houses is easier for the right than suggesting wealthy people should pay more tax. 

By Jonn Elledge

The Daily Mail considers itself the voice, nay soul, of Middle England. Consequently, there are a few positions which it can be relied upon to hold. That the public sector is wasteful and incompetent; that foreigners are suspect, especially any that happen to work in Brussels; and that mass home ownership is good, and ever rising house prices better. On the latter it has never, to my knowledge, acknowledged any contradiction or tension between these two positions.

But like the golf club bores and Hyacinth Buckets of Middle England, the Mail is occasionally prone to hypocrisy, in roughly the same way that Jacob Rees-Mogg is occasionally prone to being an irritating posh man. For while the paper and its sister titles remain bafflingly convinced that exorbitantly priced houses are A Good Thing, it nonetheless indulges in barely suppressed rage whenever the wrong sort of people happen to own them.

The most recent target was “campaigning football star Marcus Rashford” who, the Mail on Sunday informed us “has bought five luxury homes worth more than £2m” (between them, not each); lives in another valued at £1.85m (which was strangely excluded from the headline calculation); and has “mortgages from the Queen’s bank, Coutts”, too (fancy!). In the Guardian, New Statesman contributor Jonathan Liew described the article as conveying “a loathing so artfully sheathed you would barely know it’s there”, which led Mail on Sunday editor Ted Verity to reply with a grumpy letter denying that the article was “(a) somehow racist, and (b) part of some right-wing plot to discredit [Rashford]”.

[see also: Marcus Rashford and the new political football]

Point (a) is debatable, though it’s hardly for Verity to decide; but the truth of (b) seems all too clear. On that, the editor gave the game away when he added that “it’s only people on the left who think there’s anything wrong with becoming a buy-to-let landlord”: the paper is trying to discredit the footballer in the eyes of his left-wing fan base. If that was the goal, it might have been better off highlighting his tax status, lovingly detailed in this week’s Private Eye. Then again, implying that rich people should pay more tax is uncomfortable territory for the Mail, whereas attacking left-wingers for owning big houses is very, very comfortable indeed.

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After all, the paper has previous. In May this year, the Mail on Sunday was to be found scoffing at “man of the people” Keir Starmer, who owned seven acres of Surrey “that could be worth up to £10m”. That figure also seemed a little bit suspect: the house attached was worth a mere £480,000, and the much bigger number seems to have been arrived at by working out how much the land would be worth if it came with planning permission it does not in fact have. The fact the land is on the green belt and so is, despite my best efforts, vanishingly unlikely to be turned into a housing estate didn’t seem to bother the paper. 

Neither did the fact that “Keir purchased the field for his late disabled mother”, who had used it to graze sick donkeys (honestly, what an evil bastard). All these things – wealth, family loyalty, donkeys – that the paper was normally in favour of were suddenly suspect because of their association with a Labour leader who it insisted on referring to as “Sir Keir” throughout. Would a “man of the people” have a knighthood, eh? Would a man of the people look after his mum? Would a man of the people care about donkeys?

None of this is new: search for almost any significant Labour politician or other figure on the left with the words “dailymail” and “house” and you can find something similar. In 2016, a house that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t own but happened to live near was “on the market for the eye-watering asking price of £925,000”. “Only a real champagne socialist could afford it” barked the paper.

The year before that, the paper gleefully noted that “[Ed] Miliband’s £2.7m house in north London means he is the only party leader who would be hit by his mansion tax”, seemingly under the impression that a politician proposing to introduce a tax that they themselves would have to pay was somehow a form of hypocrisy, rather than the exact opposite.

Months later, Diane Abbott “angered her neighbours by backing a traffic scheme that could send the value of her own £1m house soaring”. London house prices being what they were, the scheme proved entirely unnecessary from an inflationary perspective: five years on, a different story noted in passing that it was worth £1.2m.

It isn’t only left-wing figures in whose homes the paper takes an interest: you can, if you’re so inclined, find details of Boris Johnson’s Camberwell “love nest” and Theresa May’s rental income. But those stories differ in one crucial respect: there’s no suggestion that there’s something hypocritical about the whole thing. We’re encouraged to gawp, because gawping at rich and famous people is what the Mail is for. We’re not encouraged to hate while we do it.

The thing is, though, any young person who suddenly finds they are tremendously rich is going to be tempted to invest their money in property. Any senior MP is likely to own a family home in inner London, which will generally mean something worth somewhere in the region of a million quid. I would rather live in a world where those things weren’t true, and have frequently written as much. The Mail, though, is generally all in favour. Funny how these things only seem to bother it when it’s people who care about inequality who benefit, isn’t it?