Polly Toynbee on Mind the Gap - Class in Britain Now by Ferdinand Mount
Ferdinand Mount is a Conservative through and through observes Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian on 3 September 2004. Yet he can see how society has failed the poor. Thanks to Polly for permission to reprint her review.
In this week of the Republican convention, here comes a salutary reminder that conservatism was not always what it is today in Britain and America. It was not always a purely selfish, red-in-tooth-and-claw force of nature designed only to protect the power of the rich. Here is a timely reminder of the Disraelian One Nation strand of conservative thought - which could become the Tories' credible passport back to power.
A book by a former head of the No 10 policy unit in Tory days offers the first real breath of fresh air in Conservative thinking since the Thatcher revolutionaries imposed their own intellectual orthodoxy, strangling all other traditions. Ferdinand Mount's Mind the Gap is a book about social class and the dangerously deepening divide between what he calls the Uppers and the Downers.
Following Michael Howard's obnoxious "political correctness" speech, I was seething with disgust at present-day conservatism as it swerves about grabbing any quick, bright, nasty thing in its desperate bid for headlines. Sometimes new leaders toy with "caring conservatism", but without any grounding it lacks all authenticity. They soon lose their bearings and head back to the safety of punishment and tax cuts.
Mount's is the first conservative book in a long while to acknowledge honestly that social mobility ground to a halt 25 years ago. He admits the hypocrisy of Mrs Thatcher's "trickle-down" theory of social justice that tax cuts and wealth-creation at the top would benefit those at the bottom too. A society without upward mobility is a problem for conservative values, where inequality is only justified if the poor can sometimes pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
The great surge of upward social mobility of the 50s and 60s didn't last. Two studies of cohorts of children show how many of those born in 1958 ended up in jobs far better than their fathers', but by the time those born in 1970 grew up, their prospects were almost static. Now, according to Cabinet Office figures, a child in the bottom social classes is 15 times less likely to become middle class than a children already born into a middle-class family.
This Labour knows, as it tries to kick-start social mobility with Sure Start, better schools and a hundred schemes to improve life chances at the bottom. How much of it will work, no one yet knows. But this growing social chasm is rarely admitted by Tories, who prefer to blame the lower orders for their plight.
Make no mistake, in every word and phrase, this is a very conservative book, gently patrician in tone and nostalgic for lost days of working-class solidity, religion, respectability and autodidactic self-improvement. (Those people are still there, but they are among the home-owning middle classes now.) No one to the left of centre could possibly have written either Mount's analysis nor most of his prescriptions. He doesn't see soar-away greed at the top as a prime cause of social breakdown - but then nor does New Labour. He has a very Tory repulsion for modern vulgarity and coarseness of a "hollowed out" lower-class culture. He blames the welfare state for draining the workers' impulse towards autodidactic self-help and mutual savings clubs; he pays scant attention to the hardships that bred such "independence".
So he's a Tory through and through.
But he offers a sympathetic and honest understanding of a deformed society that has battened down its bottom class into perpetual failure. He inhabits the RAB Butler strand of Toryism that delivered the 1944 Education Act, genuinely committed to equality of opportunity. He is looking for real answers. Some are eccentric - expecting lonely vicars in beleaguered urban deserts to become the main deliverers of social services, for instance. But he does come up with one profoundly important idea.
He identifies the great housing estate social ghettos created since the war as the root of the problem now. As the better-off fled and bought their own homes, the most helpless are now all herded together, the weakest victimised by the drug addicts and criminals. These monstrous "communities" are destined to be for ever dysfunctional. Their schools will be the worst schools and no exit is the fate of all who enter there. The postwar slum clearance boom with all its good intentions for high-standard social housing has degenerated into sealed-off islands that have turned into social prisons.
Now three-quarters of the population own their own homes, the whole culture revolves around that self-defining possession of a plot of land and four walls. Those without are more dispossessed than ever. It is time to make ownership possible for all. He doesn't explore the details of how the funds are found or rent transformed to mortgages, but he makes a fundamentally important point about what has happened in a nation addicted to booming house prices.
The shortage of affordable housing, especially in the south, is due to the astronomic price of land. Forty per cent of the cost of a new house in the south-east is the price of the land. The value of land is due directly to strict planning laws. Fewer houses are being built now than for decades, while agricultural land - no longer of dig-for-Britain economic use - is senselessly protected by middle-class lobbies.
It's time to let land go, send the price of housing tumbling and make everyone a property owner.
Mount accepts that setting people free to build will mean more eyesores and landscape blots, as people are allowed to build in ramshackle ways. But if it would transform the lives of all the dispossessed, giving them a real stake, responsibility and a share in wealth, isn't it worth it? The Campaign to Protect Rural England would say no - but here's a conservative willing to argue against a landscape frozen in time by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.
Inside Labour others are considering similar ideas. Could estates be sold off, pulled down and social housing be pepper-potted around in better-off areas? US research shows that moving poor families into better areas and schools immediately improves those children's chances. Yet we are trying to rebuild and regenerate these ghettos with large sums of money. Two thousand estates in Britain are labelled as failing. True, in some areas there is no social mix, but through great swathes of Britain desolate estates are tucked away cheek-by-jowl with expensive housing. In London, the straggling Acacia Avenue suburbs, often gone to seed, could be pulled down and rebuilt to intensive city density to give more people homes.
With this kind of serious thinking, Ferdinand Mount suggests a Tory road map back from the wilderness. He confronts the real problems and offers some genuinely Tory solutions, not cheap political wheezes. The current frontbench is unlikely to get it, for Mount's is a voice of the distant past, the better Tory voice of the Ian Gilmour era, the "not one of us" wets ejected by Thatcher. But it may take another turn or two of the electoral wheel before the Conservative party rediscovers this kind of authentic, electable voice. Polly Toynbee 3 September 2004
Shaun Spiers, Campaign to Protect Rural England
Shaun Spiers, the Chief Executive of the CPRE replied to Polly's review in the Guardian letters page on 7 September 2004. Aged 42, a former Labour Member of the European Parliament for the London South East constituency between 1994 and 1999, serving on the Agriculture and Rural Services Committee, Spiers took over as Chief Executive from Kate Parminter in March 2004. In between he was the Chief Executive of the Association of British Credit Unions Limited, representing most of Britain's credit unions - savings and loans co-operatives owned and run by their members. He believes in social inclusion.
Polly Toynbee says the way to bring down house prices and increase home ownership is to "let the land go", abolishing the planning system and letting everyone build where they like. She's absolutely right in stating that the Campaign to Protect Rural England rejects this idea. This is not out of conservatism, or indifference to the plight of those struggling to find an affordable home. We have made proposals for increasing affordable housing where people generally want to live - near to where they work, shop and send their children to school.
Building houses over rural England would destroy much of what people most value about this nation - its countryside. It would have serious environmental consequences, increasing road traffic, putting severe strain on the supply of water and creating a massive need for new infrastructure. It would lead to further destructive abandonment of urban areas, leaving those worst off behind. And it would be most unlikely to make a difference to house prices, since the market would continue to be dominated by transactions involving existing, not new, homes.
England, one of the most built-up countries in the world, faces huge challenges in regenerating its cities and preventing the north-south divide from getting ever wider. In tackling these challenges we can and should provide many more affordable homes and diverse, thriving neighbourhoods with a mix of tenures and incomes. These are much better solutions than letting new, owner-occupied housing sprawl over the countryside. If that happened, people like Polly would still be able to fly to France or Italy to get their countryside, but ours would be lost forever. Shaun Spiers 7 September 2004
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