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.


Joe Otten said...

I was on holiday last week too, reading among other things your book 'The Human Element' which I must say was very good.

Anyway, on the topic, you say "we" have turned our land into a property bubble. Who is this "we"? And why haven't they done it to France too? Might it not just be that we have less land per head in the UK, and this makes it more expensive?

David Boyle said...

Hello Joe, thanks for reading the book - beyond the call of duty!

Of course population pressure must have an effect, but the real reason is that we have (a) pumped resources into the mortgage market and inflated house prices like that, having abandoned any kind of controls in 1980 (the 'corset') and not replaced them with anything, and (b) see to believe, quite wrongly, that rising property prices are something to be cheered, when actually they are about to reduce us to slavery.

That's the way I see it anyway, but this inflation is produced by too much money not primarily by scarcity.

Indy said...

I'd like to add in to the picture that while we have less land than the French, we also use our land less optimally. By not investing in our transport infrastructure we've created large swathes of land in the North that aren't accessible enough to even out prices.

Blissex said...

Your post here is as infuriating as your "Broke" book.

The banks are the culprits? To me they seem merely like the all-too-happy enablers.

The people responsible for asset bubbles and speculation are the middle classes themselves. They have been demanding massive tax-free capital gains for 25-30 years now, plus lower wages and pensions and welfare for everybody else.

It is not the regime or banks that are corrupt, it is the voters.

60-70% of voters are people who want to live off property income like ladies of the manor, to jump into the upper classes, who don't need good jobs, trade unions or pensions because they live off the appreciation and rents of their properties.

When you write:

«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»

all you do is sound like a sore loser to the majority of aspiring landladies of the manor in the South East; they know that the winners who understood the aspiration of the middle classes to become upper class wealthy rentiers living off their properties would have bought a lot of rental properties and would be able to pass them on to their children.

I know several people in their 20s and 30s who are mostly taking fun jobs waiting to inherit a couple of flats or houses in London and then live like ladies or gentlemen, off the work of your children, or those of northern or polish parents.

The tories (whether Conservatives and New Labour) have been pandering to the aspiration of most South East voters to the true English way of life: that described in the Jane Austen novels, of living off property income, of a plantation economy, in which 60-70% of voters would live in luxurious comfort in manors on salubrious tops of the hill while the losers would work hard for low wages and live in expensive slums in the swamps to serve their betters.

The majority of English voters have been voting with determination and conviction for 25-30 years for lower wages (and pensions and other welfare) for everybody else and higher rents (and asset prices and lower taxes) for themselves.

They have completely bought into the "winner take all" economy because each of them thought they would be winners and join the upper class lifestyle, and devil may take the losers like you and your children who have not borrowed to buy property.

The South East middle classes have applauded all that you complain about in your book, because they all though they would become upper class.

Blissex said...

And BTW the whole gigantic debt bubble will eventually burst when it reaches a "tipping point", and that will be sooner than later, because the UK is current again a large oil importer like it was in the 60s and 70s:

and how important that is was explained by Tony Blair in 1987 in this extremely important article, which describes the electoral strategy of every UK government, including his own, in the past 25-30 years:

David Boyle said...

Dear Blissex, thank you for the oil link, but you misunderstand what I've been saying in Broke. I have absolutely made clear that the middle classes, as cheer-leaders of disastrous monetary policies, have been complicit in their own demise.

I'm not arguing that one class should retain its privileges. I am saying that we are hurtling towards a world where there is a tiny elite and everyone else is dependent on landlords and zero-hour contract employers - and that this matters to everyone.

I agree there are still people who are able to live off rents, but there are not that many of them.

Blissex said...

«saying that we are hurtling towards a world where there is a tiny elite and everyone else is dependent on landlords and zero-hour contract employers - and that this matters to everyone.»

The crucial thing is that both the middle class and the working class (that you seem to call the "lower middle class") have been voting with great enthusiasm for 25-30 years for "everyone else is dependent on landlords and zero-hour contract employers".

Because they all think they will be part of that "tiny elite".

The numbers are clear: 60%-70% of English voters are property owners, and over half of them have fully paid their mortgages, and most still have very comfortable lifetime pensions paying 60-70% of final salary on top, pensions often beginning at 55-60 rather than 65, and sometimes earlier for workers in property-protection jobs.

All of them are thinking that they have made in the upper class, and can live well off their pension property and their housing property.

Of the 30%-40% that are not property owners, perhaps half are the expectant future heirs of the 70% that are already property rentiers.

Thus most voters and the vast majority of the middle class, rather than just a small number of "masters of the universe" in the City, have adopted the politics of "f*ck you, I got mine".

The theme of your very useful (I am buying more copies to give to friends) but infuriatingly parochial book and also of your blog seems to me to be that you and your children belong to the minority of voters who did not get theirs, and that you should get yours too, enabling you and your children to live an affluent, secure lifestyle supported by the hard scrabble of the working class; and my impression is that to get yours you and your children should be entitled to safe, high paid, jobs and low rents and property prices allowing you to enjoy ample leisure time.

Well, the vast majority of South East voters think they got theirs by speculating on property by borrowing as much as they could, and your book and blog probably look like sour grapes to them; and that you and your children are those who should scramble and work hard to pay them high rents to keep them in the lady-of-the-manor lifestyle they are entitled to.

They are deluded of course, because the better off 60-70% of voters cannot live off the hard work and low wages of the poorer 30-40%; rentiers need to be a small percentage of the total to live in comfortable affluence on the back of other people's work, but each of those 60-70% is persuaded they will make it, and everybody else will be losers.

And I wrote "South East", because your book and most of your blog seem based on completely disregarding the rather nasty demise of the northern and celtic middle classes, which have been destroyed by Thatcherism and not benefited from the massive government supported property speculation in the South East, and that when they move to it to get some humble job have to pay high rents and prices to the majority of South East middle classes who speculated their way to what they think is upper class wealth and lifestyles.

In what I think is a very South-Eastern middle class attitude, the world you care about seems to end at the Watford Gap, and even that outside the M25 seems to me to matter a lot less to you.

BellisVintage said...

Why is it that when one talks of the British way of life being eroded it discusses one point only - house prices?

As an English person now living in France one can say - invite an English man to dinner and he will discuss house prices - invite a French man to dinner and he will discuss food.

When did the British become so narrow in their outlook? Well I think I can answer that question - somewhere around the mid 1980s - about the same time that greed became acceptable.

I have now lived in France for two years and what comes across more than anything else is that they are as a race much more well rounded than the British. They are not obsessed by money to the degree that the British are, their lives are simpler but "richer" somehow, they do not consume on the level the British do.

Britain has become a capitalist monster. The British now define themselves only by how many houses they own, how much they earn, what car they drive, how many holidays they have had. So much so that many British are beyond reason. They have turned into people who work and consume - period - by their own volition. If people are not consuming they don't know what to do with themselves.

The consequences of making mass consumption such a disease is all too evident by my own family members approaching retirement age who say categorically they want to work until they die (and not because they can't afford to retire). When you argue that there are lots of unpaid roles one can do they say they are not prepared to do this.

When did this happen? People used to work towards retirement - it was the golden light at the end of the tunnel. But also, more importantly, it was a time of enlightenment/maturity that it was time for others to take over the reins. It basically stopped one from selfishly hogging the limelight for too long.

Now I sit in bemusement listening to family members who see no other life other than working (and consuming obviously). When you challenge them that they could afford to retire, they deny it (even though they live in large houses).

In the meantime they deny others the opportunity to get on the career ladder. I believe that in time British greed and meanness will be recognised as a mental disease - just as an anorexic who is unable to see their own thinness - and some form of treatment will become available.

It is no coincidence that the physical disease obesity has multiplied on epidemic proportions during this period too. Greed in all forms is a toxin that is perpetuating the continuing decline in Britain.

Thatcher created a culture in Britain where people stopped asking the reasonable question "when is enough enough?" The insatiable appetite of greed has left the vast majority of British beyond any sensible reasoning.

It is only when those who are comfortably off regain a sensible state of mind that they have had their moment and hand over to others that the mental health of Britain will start to improve.