David Cameron’s bold entry into the debate about housing this week reminds one of how strange it is that housing has spent such a long time in the second division of politics. For post-1945 Labour, council housing was the key to getting the right votes in the right places (e.g., Herbert Morrison’s desire to ‘build the Tories out of London’). In the 1950s Harold Macmillan headed Labour off simply by trumping them and promising to build 300,000 council houses a year. Then Mrs Thatcher changed the politics of it all with council house sales and the freeing of the rented sector. Suddenly the upper working class had been helped in a tangible and permanent way. Ever since then it has been impossible for any politician to gainsay the desire for home ownership or to re-impose rent control. Then the independence of the Bank of England granted by Gordon Brown meant that politicians could no longer play with the mortgage rate for electoral purposes. So they more or less fell silent. Housing deserves to become an issue once more, though, for the reasons that Mr Cameron has raised. The first rung of the ‘housing ladder’ now looks like one of those fire escapes which stop an unclimbable distance from the ground. Demand is huge, and supply is rigidly small, so price is enormous. A new house is seen, by people who live near it, as a bad thing, with the result that, too often, it is — being mean, ugly and adding a new burden to local infrastructure without bringing a compensatory social, aesthetic or financial benefit. It is chiefly in housing that the old problem of the ‘Two Nations’ is growing worse. The solution lies somewhere in providing more of what people actually want — the suburban ideal of a garden and a garage — in a way that gives more revenue to the local authorities in which this takes place and in which better infrastructure is created as a reward for new building. It is all explained in Policy Exchange’s brilliant pamphlet Better Homes, Greener Cities. The short-term politics of Mr Cameron’s approach is very dangerous, because he will be inundated with protests from his party’s supporters in his safest seats, but in the end a party always does better to identify with the poor but aspirant than with those who benefit from keeping those aspirations down.
The government seeks a ‘consensus’ with other parties about how to reform the rules for party funding. Of course it does, and of course the other parties want one too. This is proof of Adam Smith’s dictum that no two men of the same trade are ever met together without conspiring against the public. If Tory, Labour and Liberals can reach consensus for caps on private donations and their replacement with state funding, they will be well pleased. Once the principle is conceded, the extent of funding will be easy to increase from time to time when public and press are not looking. Party bureaucrats will then become seriously important figures in the state because their pay and job security will be assured, and they will be able to carve up power over public appointments and so on with their opposite numbers in other parties with almost no interference from impertinent voters. If you want to see how this works, look at the European Parliament, where well-funded international parties provide lifelong prosperity to their MEPs and officials, and the separation of electors and elected is almost complete. On the Today programme on 27 March, Kenneth Clarke addressed the issue of party funding with his characteristic mixture of amiable frankness and lazy reasoning. There was ‘no alternative left’ to state funding, he said, because rich people sometimes gave money for ‘ulterior motives’ to cash-strapped political parties. It literally did not seem to cross Mr Clarke’s mind that it is possible for a party, when made offers of this sort, to say ‘No’.
Tony Blair recently let it be known that when he leaves office he does not want to become a member of the House of Lords. ‘It’s not my style,’ he said. This was an interesting reflection on the cynicism of the man who has created more peers than any other prime minister — a case of ‘Le patron ne mange pas ici.’ But a further point occurs. Under the goody-goody rules which Mr Blair’s own government has invented, peers now have to register their interests in the same detail as MPs. If, as this column keeps arguing, Mr Blair’s main preoccupation after his resignation will be to pay off his nearly £4 million mortgages, he will not want to be made to publish the source of his earnings.
We must all be nice about Norman Kember, the ‘peace activist’ rescued from captivity in Iraq by the SAS. He has had a terrible ordeal in his months of imprisonment by the Sword of Righteousness Brigade. Any feelings of anger one might have about his adventure should therefore, I feel, be transferred to the minister of Mr Kember’s Baptist Church in Harrow, the Revd Bob Gardiner. When the newly released Mr Kember attended a service there last Sunday, Mr Gardiner sought to justify the Kember mission to Iraq, saying, ‘The Gospel makes us all take absolutely irresponsible risks for the Kingdom.’ I suppose this is the smug, low-church equivalent of the famous line in the Beyond the Fringe sketch about the Battle of Britain: ‘We need a futile gesture at this stage.’ Mr Gardiner is a leader of the Sword of Self-Righteousness Brigade. Would it be an ‘absolutely irresponsible risk for the Kingdom’ to go and punch him lightly on the nose?
It has been reported that the gang who held Mr Kember and his colleagues hostage (and murdered one of their number) were not religiously motivated but wanted money. The two can go together. From the beginnings of Muslim history, ransoming prisoners was a religiously approved way of bargaining. For example, the respected jurist al-Mawardi (974–1058), in his Ordinances of Government, has a section on ‘Dividing the war spoils’, which authorises ransom, along with enslavement, as things that can be done to infidel prisoners, citing Koranic verses in support of his argument. So Mr Kember’s kidnappers may well have been pious as well as greedy.
Last week I was talking to a country neighbour who lived in London until about ten years ago but now goes there infrequently. What she notices when she does is that ‘everyone wears black’. This is not, chiefly, the dark suits of traditional office workers, or even the larger number of women wearing varieties of Muslim garb. It is a sort of casual uniform of black trousers for both sexes, often a black jacket of different material and sometimes even a black shirt. The overall effect is depressing. Wearing colour seems to mark you out as unserious, unwaged or from out of town.
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