The spirit of our age; home ownership…

our house, top left

What defines the people of Britain in 2013? What passions push us, what motivates our activity, what things give our lives meaning and satisfaction? I think these are important questions, ones that each generation need to ask, particularly those who have faith. We do this not just to understand, but also to respond in one of two ways;

  1. To celebrate what is good- to participate, to encourage. To enhance the flavours by the sprinkling of salt. To shine light onto good things
  2. To protest and critique when things are bad- where the image of God is trampled, where people are oppressed, where creation is being damaged, where violence rules

This is part of a series of posts in which I will try to grapple with some of these things within my country.

I live in a quiet seaside town, in a large house that was built back in the early Victorian era. Our house overlooks the sea and has lovely high ceilings and an open fire place. If you do not look too close at my rather rudimentary DI, usually done on a minimal budget it might be seen as a place that is the centre of what we British people all long for.

A large house, with views, sort of in the country. If we could have this, life would be happy. We would find fulfillment. We know this because the TV is full of programmes that tell us so. Location/Escape to the country/Grand designs/etc etc.

There has been a major change to all this within our lifetimes. In 1918 just 23 per cent of households owned their home. This figure began to rise quickly from 1953 and by 1971 equal numbers owned and rented the property they lived in. In the 1980’s however, Margaret Thatcher introduced a ‘right to buy’ scheme for people who lived in council-owned property (which was itself a massive reaction to slums owned by private landlords, reflected in a massive post-war house building boom.) Thatchers idea spread like wildfire for whom would not want to stand on their own piece of little Britain?

The introduction of the right to buy in 1980 saw a fall in social housing tenants, while the proportion of people in private rented accommodation fell steadily from 76 per cent in 1918 to a low of 9 per cent in 1991 before climbing after that. Prices have been booming and despite the other problems in the econom, they remain high, even climbing still.


Since then, there has been a slight dip in the proportion of people who own their homes; it currently stands somewhere around 65%. Hardly surprising given the current state of the economy. Our aspirations have not changed but in this country the rich are getting richer and the poor are falling through the cracks.

Also, the high price of homes makes those of us who own property feel very smug and safe. We are sitting on an appreciating asset with that wonderful word ‘equity’. However this means that other people, particularly our kids, will find it next to impossible to join us on that over-used phrase- ‘the property ladder’. The bottom rung is out of reach for most ordinary people. This enforces a sense of social injustice; what seems like a natural right for some is a distant dream for others.

Houses in Middlesbrough

The questions that started me writing this post however is less about the economics of all this, and much more about what this trend of property worship says about us.

Let me tell you a couple of stories from the boundaries of my garden.

On one side there is an argument about the road access, and ownership of some land that has been a commonly used path for generations. Solicitors have been engaged, damage has been done, threats and violence resulted in the police being called and charges leveled. We have kept out of it all and tried our best to remain in relationship with both sides.

More recently another neighbor applied for planning permission to convert property to offer as a holiday let. This was refused at pre-planning stage because of various reasons, primarily the increase in traffic on our little access lane. They protested that their neighbours (us) were doing all that they wanted to do and more, and raised a complaint to planning about our micro enterprises. We had some sympathy about the apparent lack of fairness but tried to remind them that our house used to be a 9 bedroom hotel, and that what we were doing was relatively low scale compared to what it had been previously. However, their response was to engage a high powered planning consultant who is now engaged in a campaign to close down what we are doing. It is all very stressful, but the real pressure on us is an inability to understand how any one can be so apparently vindictive.

A couple of streets away, another friend is embroiled in another dispute over boundaries. Mistakes made by surveyors and land registry people have now meant that her house has been built partially on land owned by another. He has no use for this land whatsoever, it is a strip of waste ground on the edge of a vast piece of other ground, but this man began a campaign of harassment in the courts and in person, trying to extort thousands of pounds from various parties. It seems likely that he knew of the error all along and was biding his time to make an issue of it all.

What is all this about? It is possible that some of the people involved (like the man in the last story) have some psychological issues, even to the point of anti social personality traits. However I also wonder if what we are seeing is an emerging consequence of the spirit of the age.

To be a property owner is to stand on your own mini empire. This gives entitlement, privilege and exclusivity. But all empires need to be defended. Threats to the empire (real or perceived) promotes feelings of fear, insecurity, anger. And nothing angers us more than the sense that our rights are being infringed; that feeling when something that is ‘ours’ is being encroached upon by another.

Rarely do we see this for what it is- a passing delusion. A construct of our ways of living, ways of communing.

There is a long tradition within agrarian economies in which ownership of (or perhaps more accurately access to) the land is vital. It give access, identity, belonging, community, vitality. Alistair McIntosh’s book Soil and Soul captures these ideas brilliantly. In our post modern, post industrial economy, these things have become distorted by seeing land not as a resource, but rather as the ultimate consumer commodity by which we measure personal value.


What should our response be to all this as followers of Jesus? We have to start with the idea that Jesus had little time for storing up resources on the earth. The sermon on the mount was fairly categorical about all this. Simon Cross posted this quote on facebook the other day;

“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

Soren Kierkegaard.

Ouch. The call of Jesus was to build communities of love, and to eschew placing our security on earthly things. House ownership seems to run potentially counter to both of these calls on our lives.

Are we in the church less susceptible to house-idolatry, or perhaps even more so? I suspect that the average church goer in the UK is more likely than to be a home owner than not. How do we model a relationship to our property that is not dominated by the same petty-empire building agenda?

There are of course other stories of houses in the NT- Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha for example obviously had a big place, able to throw parties and welcome the whole of Jesus’ travelling band of misfits. Jesus loved Lazarus. Then there were all those places that Paul referred to in his letters where secret groups of people met to worship and share life.

The issue, it seems, is not the ownership, but the meaning of the ownership in the lives of those of us who own. Perhaps more importantly, the use we put our places to. There might be an extra pressure on we followers of Jesus who own. It might be that we become camels trying to fit through needles.

I would in no way set myself up as a shining example of how we can work out the challenge of this in our way of living. However, here are some of the things that we are trying to do.

  • To see our house as a resource for the Kingdom, not just ‘ours’. Running a business here has sometimes felt a little in contrast with this, but we see ourselves as primarily providers of hospitality
  • To refuse to participate in border squabbles. The house next door was partially on our land according to the land registry, so we changed the registry record. There is a bigger challenge with other neighbours as mentioned above, but recently we were able to give some roof slates to a workman working on their property. They probably do not know, but it felt like it was good for our souls
  • Being a good neighbour is a process of small acts of kindness and demonstrated positive regard. This is an act of will- wishing the best for those around you, not just peering and sneering, not participating in destructive gossip

There is also a feeling I have that churches can express a collective challenge to the dominant property worship. Many already demonstrate this by using church buildings in flexible community-centred ways, even though many of our church buildings are not necessarily the most warm and welcoming pieces of architecture.

I have this idea for an installation in the middle of my town. It will probably not happen as my friends in Aoradh will politely raise their eyebrows at another one of my crazy ideas and after humouring me for a while will politely change the subject. But the idea is something like this;

A shed in the middle of the square, painted, surrounded by pot plants. All in a ring of barbed wire stopping anyone getting near it. People will be asked to consider their own houses, what they mean to them, their regrets about broken relationships with neighbours, their worries about the exclusion from ownership of their children.

And also, to be grateful for the roof, the warmth and the place for family that many in the wider world, let alone in the UK, lack.


Poverty in the UK 2013…


The strivers/skivers language used by our present government is a shameful smokescreen over what is happening to whole sections of our society.

I make no apologies for this assertion- I have seen it with my eyes, and now there is this;

Senior welfare experts have urged the government to reconsider benefit cuts coming into force next week that will disproportionately hit the poorest families and push a further 200,000 children into poverty.

In an open letter to David Cameron, published in the Guardian, more than 50 social policy professors warn that the welfare reforms, coupled with previous tax, benefit and public expenditure cuts, will result in the poorest tenth of households losing the equivalent of around 38% of their income.

They say the changes will undermine public support for the welfare state – which they call “one of the hallmarks of a civilised society”.

“Welfare states depend on a fair collection and redistribution of resources, which in turn rests upon the maintenance of trust between different sections of society and across generations.

“Misleading rhetoric concerning those who have to seek support from the welfare state, such as the contrast between ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’, risks undermining that trust and, with it, one of the key foundations of modern Britain.”

The letter argues that such rhetoric does not reflect the reality of a UK where families move fluidly in and out of work and in and out of poverty.

It adds: “In the interests of fairness and to protect the poorest, as well as to avoid the risk of undermining the consensus on the British welfare state, we urge you to increase taxation progressively on the better off, those who can afford to pay (including ourselves), rather than cutting benefits for the poorest.”

As I read this, I can hear ringing in my head the voices of people who regard poverty in this country as almost entirely the fault of the poor- their poor planning, fecklessness, gambling, smoking, drinkings, laziness, refusal to get out there and find a job. I hear them tell me how benefits are the problem- removing the imperative for change and industry in those who then become a sponge on the productivity of society. ‘Nobody needs to be poor in this country’ I hear them say. ‘Nobody can be regarded as poor if they wear designer trainers and sit on their arses playing X-box all day.’

People who say these things, even those who grew up in poor households, they have rarely had any contact with those living in poverty- whose confidence and hope have been undermined by the brutalising effect of living as a non-citizen in post modern classless Britain.

I too grew up in a poor family- the child of a single mother who often did not eat so we could go to piano lessons, or have a new pair of shoes. I remember still the shame of this life- the feeling that I was less than my peers, and that no matter what I did to try to hide this, it was as if I wore a big badge saying ‘poor’. This was nothing to do with choices that I, or even my mother had made. There was nothing romantic about this experience, nothing that might be regarded as character building. What I became has always been built on these very shaky foundations.

I was reminded again of this when reading this;

A separate report compiled by academics from six UK universities concludes that Britain’s poorest are worse off today than they were at the height of the cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1983.

The Poverty and Exclusion project reports that 33% of British households lacked at least three basic living necessities in 2012, compared with 14% in 1983. These include living in adequately heated homes, eating healthily, and owning basic clothing items such as properly fitting shoes.

“Despite the fact that the UK is a much wealthier country, levels of deprivation are going back to the levels found 30 years ago,” says the report, titled The Impoverishment of The UK.

Some of the findings are featured in an ITV Tonight programme titled Breadline Britain on Thursday evening.

The report found:

• Around 4 million adults and almost 1 million children lack at least one basic item of clothing, such as a warm winter coat, while 3 million adults of working age (including over a fifth of those looking for work) cannot afford appropriate clothes for a job interview.

• Roughly 4 million children and adults are not fed properly judged against what most people consider to be a minimally acceptable diet – meaning they do not eat three meals a day, including fresh fruit, meat, fish and vegetables. Over a quarter of all adults skimped on meals so others in their households could eat.

• One-third of all adults can’t afford to pay unexpected costs of £500 (such as if a cooker breaks down), 31% can’t afford to save at least £20 a month, and 1 million children can’t afford to join sports training or drama clubs.

• About 11 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions and nearly one in ten households are unable to afford to fully heat their home.

The project measures who and how many people fall below what the majority agree are “necessities for life” in the UK today. The list of necessities also includes consumer items such as a washing machine and a telephone, and social activities like visiting friends and family in hospital.

“The results present a remarkably bleak portrait of life in the UK today and the shrinking opportunities faced by the bottom third of UK society,” said the head of the project, Professor David Gordon of Bristol University. “Moreover this bleak situation will get worse as benefit levels fall in real terms, real wages continue to decline and living standards are further squeezed.”

What gets me most about our present government and the politics they espouse is the grubby defensive self serving flavour of it all. Our ambitions for society have become, at best, to carve for ourselves some individual security, and let those who lack our ambition go hang.

How do you find ambition if you feel nothing but defeat? If the zeitgeist all around you is redolent with hopelessness?

My mate Graham posted this quote the other day;

I stored this from a wonderous mailing called ‘Friday night theology’ back in October and is written by someone called Roger Sutton. Most of this could as easily be read by a person with faith or no faith. I love the way that it points us to the other and is not the usual motivational self, self guff. Great for Holy Week:

‘When you believe life is limited, with only so many resources to go round then you naturally hold on to what you have, you grasp and hoard and defend. It’s an ugly place to live, with fear and anxiety at its heart. But if you believe life is unlimited, abundant and providential then you can respond with a grateful heart for the bread we receive each day knowing there will be more bread just around the corner. We can give and bless others and take care of those who are the most vulnerable, knowing that true compassion knows no limit, it has no fatigue element. Stewardship then replaces control, where we take responsibility to make sure the resources are allocated in fair and just ways, but always knowing that we bring our small offering of loaves and fish. It’s simply what we have, and the force of abundance adds to those humble gifts and multiplies them.

We need to challenge our propensity towards anxiety, believing that life is out to get us. We need to trust again in the God of harvest time, the providing abundant force in the universe. The future, as Daniel O’Leary in Passion for the Possible tells us: “is a mother waiting for us with outstretched arms, and a father who is crazy about our  freedom and our fulfillment and longs only for us to let him love us”

Where my friends is this kind of politics, this kind of economics, this kind of social policy?

This kind of religion?

Politics does not matter- or does it?

Michaela and I were sitting looking miserably into our tea cups today and talking about the vote in parliament to cut welfare payments.

All this depressing divisive and stigmatizing talk of ‘strivers and skyvers’. Tax cuts to the rich to encourage them all to generate ‘growth’ in the economy (best measured it seems by how much the rich get even richer.) As if the poor are somehow culpable- a useless drain on society that we are better without. As if they were the cause of all this economic turmoil rather than its primary victims.

Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty pronounced this vote as the final nail in the coffin of the welfare state. Some may regard this as overdue- as we lurch to the right, and find our political language dominated by America. But we are not America. We have our own proud history- not the Kings-and-Queens stuff, but the history of the rise of a kind of shared decency that characterises these islands. The history of the small people in fields and factories. Here is Chakrobortty;

 the golden period of Welfare really came in the 60s and 70s as, thanks to the work of Barbara Castle, Jeff Rooker, Audrey Wise and others, pensions and allowances were made more generous and tied to typical earnings.

“If you were poor, you were far less behind than at any other time in contemporary British history,” according to Richard Exell, a senior policy officer at the TUC and a campaigner on welfare issues for more than 30 years. “It produced a Britain that was one of the most equal societies in western Europe.”

Just before Margaret Thatcher came to power, a single person out of work would get unemployment benefit worth almost 21% of average earnings; last year, jobseeker’s allowance was nearly half that, amounting to just over 11%.

Welfare’s big decline came in the 1980s, as the Conservatives moved more benefits from available to all to on offer only to the poor. This was justified as making public spending more efficient.

But, according to a famous and much quoted study by Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme, such means-testing is far less effective and more expensive than universal benefits. In a study of 18 rich countries, the academics found that targetting benefits at the poorest usually generated resentment among those just above – and led to smaller entitlements.

This “paradox of redistribution” was certainly observable in Britain, where Welfare retained its status as one of the 20th century’s most exalted creations, even while those claiming benefits were treated with ever greater contempt.

“If you look at unemployment and sickness benefit as a proportion of average earnings, then Britain has one of the meanest welfare systems in Europe,” says Palme. “Worse than Greece, Bulgaria or Romania.”

Some of that same meanness can be seen in the way Welfare was discussed as it moved into its sixth and seventh decades. It was no longer about social security but benefits. Those who received them were no longer unfortunate but “slackers“, as Iain Duncan Smith referred to them. A recent study by Declan Gaffney, Ben Baumberg and Kate Bell of 6,600 national newspaper articles on Welfare published between 1995 and 2011 found 29% referred to benefit fraud. The government’s own estimate of fraud is that it is less than 1% across all benefit cases.

Is this what we come to- this great nation of ours? Mean and whinging and judgmental?  Are we not better than this? Which brings me back to politics. Michaela remembered reading something recently about one of the finest politic speeches of the last 50 years in the UK- Neil Kinnock, speaking in 1985, at a time when we were young and fired up by ideas and hope that things could be better;

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you.

I warn you that you will have pain–when healing and relief depend upon payment.

I warn you that you will have ignorance–when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

I warn you that you will have poverty–when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay.

I warn you that you will be cold–when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work–when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don’t earn, they don’t spend. When they don’t spend, work dies.

I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

I warn you that you will be quiet–when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

I warn you that you will have defence of a sort–with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

I warn you that you will be home-bound–when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

I warn you that you will borrow less–when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday–

– I warn you not to be ordinary

– I warn you not to be young

– I warn you not to fall ill

– I warn you not to get old.

Neil Kinnock

For the record, Thatcher won the election and we live in her rain shadow still. Cameron and his whipping boy Clegg have now gone further than even Thatcher would ever have dared go however.

Politics matters. We need some more Kinnocks- for all their faults…

Margaret Thatcher and Elvis Costello

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Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol has recently written movingly about her mother’s advancing Alzheimers Disease. THere was an interesting debate on the radio this evening concerning whether Carol should have revealed these intimate details of her mothers dementia, as her mother now lacks the ability to give her consent to this.

The spectre of old age infirmity and loss of faculties hangs over all of us. Author Terry Pratchett has been outspoken about his own dementia, and it seems to me that any publicity that raises the profile of the experience of this growing group of people is a good thing. Even better if this results in increased funding for research and development in treatment and care of older folks.

Anyone who has to visit the back wards of the oldest parts of our hospitals (where the ‘elderly acute’ wards are almost always to be found) will be aware that such places often appear to be nothing more than warehouses for amateur cadavers. Despite some wonderful staff, for most of the people who end their days there- after a referral of last resort- dignity has long gone.

But- Margaret Thatcher- vulnerable, human, just like the rest of us…

I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain. Communities I lived in where split apart by her calculated battle with the National Union of Miners, and now almost all the pits are gone. I write this sat in a car driving through Sheffield on out way down to Derbyshire to attend a family wedding. All the steel works are gone. The old industrial sites are covered with scrub, or been cleared back to make shrines to the great patron of retail parks, Margaret herself…

Were all those broken communities and broken lives necessary? Did economic reality make them inevitable, as Margaret always said? Did the Free Market really know best? History will decide, I suppose. But her status as an iconic epoch shifter is already cast in bronze.

But in the 1980’s, we knew who our enemy was. She was Satan in a twin-set. She personified everything that we rejected. It all came back to ideology- and hers was based on a selfish individualism, and an elevation of greed as an engine for social change. Or that is the way half of Britain saw it.

She inspired incredible idolatry from her followers. And generated genuine loathing from the other side of the spectrum, perhaps like no other democratic politician before or since. It is possible to understand the divisive effect she had more fully by remembering a song by Elvis Costello called ‘Tramp the dirt down.’ It included these lines;

I saw a newspaper picture from the political campaign
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously in pain
She spills with compassion, as that young child’s
face in her hands she grips
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice
coming down on that child’s lips

Well I hope I don’t die too soon
I pray the Lord my soul to save
Oh I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live
long enough to savour
The day they finally put you in the ground

I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

Words by Elvis Costello, from the album ‘Spike’, 1989

With the benefit of a few years family-raising and Brodski-quartet-consorting, the angry man of pop might regret these words now, but the point is, some of us sang along to these words with relish at the time.

So Margaret, may your end be kind.

And may those whose fate was once in your hands not wish upon your head the pain of poverty and powerlessness.

And may each one of us be worth so much more than a distant decimal point in an economist’s prediction…

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