Monday, 5 August 2013
The euthanasia of the British way of life
Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) may have noticed, if they were particularly observant, that I have't managed to keep up my usual, how shall I say, rhythm, over the past week. That is because I've been on holiday on a very small farm in Normandy.
We found the gite through the website Accueil Paysan, which gives people the chance to stay on small farms, and which apparently the English very rarely use - though their cars and accents are very much in evidence in the local town, Port-Bail. This is rather strange, because that kind of holiday seems almost impossible now in the UK - with the hens and ducks everywhere - because everything has been made so miserably tidy.
A week on the farm, watching the cows being milked by hand every evening, has made me feel extraordinarily relaxed. But here I am back in London, blogging again.
What I took away from the week was a bit of a conundrum. How come that way of life is still a option in France, when it isn't in the UK?
The broader answer is partly to do with the French way. If you need fresh bread every morning, you don't want to go to a out of town shopping centre to get it - and Amazon won't really do either. You will necessarily support a very local of network of boulangeries, with all the economic implications of that.
But how come small-scale agriculture remains possible in France? The farm where we stayed made a great deal of yogurt, and sold rabbits and eggs, and occasionally pigs as well. The farmer had only recently bought it, so there was presumably a mortgage on the farm too - so this was not free of debt.
It was an exhausting life, but he had chosen it and it was possible to see why.
There may have been subsidies from the CAP which underpinned the prices he was paid. The French have not allowed their supermarkets to gut the small- farms sector as we have. But, as in the UK, it is large-scale farming the gobbles up most of the agricultural subsidies in France.
No, I became convinced that it was the price of property and land that made the difference. The French have not turned their property into asset bubbles, under the mistaken impression that they represented wealth. So a civilised life on the land is still an option.
UK small business will be paying a hefty chunk of their income just to pay an insane mortgage. The Chancellors agonises about the weight of energy costs on business, and seems to be prepared to grub up the nation and frack the land to keep it low. But the much larger weight that lies so uselessly on business, extracted by the bank to pay off the mortgage, apparently doesn't worry him.
The true cost of our four-decade property bubble, and how it is taking property out of reach of the vast majority of people in this country a little more every day, is one of the main themes of my book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?
As I think about the prospects for my own children - priced out of the neighbourhoods where they were born - commuting like gastarbeiter for hours every day to work, and paying huge proportions of their meagre earnings on rent - this makes me increasingly angry.
There will come a time when people wake up to the reality: that property prices are ruining us - and then perhaps we can begin to do something about it. But hasn't happened yet.
In the meantime, it was good to spend a week where the euthanasia of a civilised life for ordinary people has been happening rather more slowly.