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Death of an idea: how Britain has abandoned the property-owning democracy

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This week an exciting new property arrived on the UK market in Bristol. The bijou terraced house in a prime location offered a kitchen-breakfast room, sitting room, and bedroom, and for only £170,000. There was only one problem: the ‘house’ was in fact a lean-to garage, messily converted and with charity shop furniture shoehorned in to lend the charade some plausibility. £170,000 is also coincidentally around the amount many bank mortgage calculators say they are willing to lend single young professionals on above-average salaries. Here is the message being sent to young working people today: if you do well at school, get your degree, and get an above average job, you too could have the chance to live in someone’s garage. What does this mean for the future of democracy in the UK, given that this undermines a centuries-old tenet of British political thought: the property-owning democracy? 

A not-very-widely discussed fact in the UK is that, compared with continental Europe, we do seem peculiarly obsessed with home ownership. There is a great deal of precedent to this obsession: the association of Englishness, private property and personal liberty is an ancient one; described in legal theory since at least the 16th century and giving birth to some notable political quotations and arguments, not least the US Constitution’s now seemingly rather strange provision against having government troops quartered in your own home but also the basis of one of Pitt the Elder’s famous speeches: 

‘The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!’

Pitt’s stance on home ownership in the 1760s has echoed through British politics all the way to the Thatcherite Right to Buy on council houses, as the thought persisted that owning property made the average Briton into a better citizen, and one more committed to moderate principles and a sense of economic self-reliance – or, as Michael Heseltine would say, ‘home ownership stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.’ Owning your own home wasn’t just about ensuring people had a place to live – it was about informing their politics and economic basis to make them good citizens in a liberal participatory democracy, through having a stake in the economic foundation of the country. 

From the beginning this idea was envisaged as a vote-winner. From the middle of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the Tory Party struggled ideologically with how to transition to a party of mass democracy. It had been the party of High Anglicanism, the Corn Laws and the rural gentry; but as Reform Acts removed the rotten boroughs and more and more British men received the vote, how did the party expect ever to win again in an increased franchise? The answer lay in redefining what conservatism meant to the average Briton. As the now-rebranded Conservatives found under Disraeli and Salisbury, and then Balfour and Baldwin, the way to appeal to popular conservatism was to ensure ‘the Englishman’s home was his castle’ – by stressing personal liberty against meddling Liberal temperance and nonconformist zeal, and private property against council interference and overlarge government. The late Victorian and Edwardian man was praised by the Conservatives for being the head of his own household, and it was this cosy domestic image that laid the foundations of our current housing crisis. 

With the growth of the Labour Party and the terrifying shadow of the 1917 revolution in Russia hanging over British society, after the First World War the Conservatives redoubled their efforts to appeal to the homemaking, property-owning instincts of the British working-class as an antidote to Bolshevism. The Conservative MP Noel Skelton’s Constructive Conservatism in the early 1920s laid out the basis of property-owning democracy as the ideological foundation for the party in an era of mass democracy and labour movements; private business and property ownership had to be extended across the electorate in order that people felt they had an economic stake in the country. People had to feel they were part of Britain’s economic success, and this was easy to do when 1919 represented the best time there has ever been to buy a home in British history. Later, during a period in opposition during the Attlee government, the Conservatives positioned themselves around the idea that capital and property should be privately-held and widely distributed amongst society, in contrast to the state ownership and massive centralisation of post-war Labour governments, something that the Thatcher governments ran with in one of their flagship policies, the sale of council housing to tenants who became homeowners for the first time. 

Given this storied history of the notion of property ownership in Britain, it seems strange that recent governments have paid so little attention to the shrinking number of young people being able to afford their own home. While a Lifetime ISA here or a Stamp Duty holiday there might seem like a positive step, the reality is that home ownership in the UK is rapidly becoming an impossible goal to achieve by hard work alone. Generations that benefited from a highly advantageous alignment of cheap housing, wages that had kept pace with inflation and Right to Buy schemes now seem increasingly guilty of having hoarded much of the private real estate of the UK, pulling up the drawbridge behind them and depriving younger generations of the chance of ever getting a step on the property ladder. With this month’s announcement of a rise in National Insurance on younger workers to pay for the social care of the elderly, essentially protecting the asset rich by taxing the asset poor, this charge that Britain is more a gerontocracy than a democracy seems more and more plausible. 

This spells difficulty ahead for the Conservatives and for British democracy more generally. If hard work and the median wage no longer guarantees owning a home, for so long the cornerstone of a Conservative desire to keep society on an even keel, what remains for the idea of a property-owning democracy, and for a generation which feels at war with those ahead of it? The American political philosopher John Rawls spoke of the property-owning democracy as the underpinning of a just, liberal, capitalist society; now that load-bearing pillar of our current political status quo has been quietly removed – perhaps by the kind of cowboy builder that tries to flog a garage as a £170,000 house.  

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