Mortgage rates doubling. Home owners in despair. Thousands of homes being repossessed.
Sounds familiar? This was Britain in 1990. I was running Nationwide Building Society’s press office and had the job of announcing that February that mortgage rates were going up to 15.4 percent. Just two years earlier the home loan rate was just over 8 percent.
The 1980s were a golden time for home ownership in Britain. Prime minister Margaret Thatcher championed a home-owning democracy, and the proportion of people owning their own home rose from 56 percent in 1980 to 67 percent in 1990. (Source: Statista.) But the housing boom crashed after Thatcher and her chancellor Nigel Lawson allowed the economy to overheat, and interest rates almost doubled in just over 18 months, culminating in that eye-watering 15.4 percent mortgage rate.
As spokesman for Britain’s third largest mortgage lender, I was busy explaining the impact on borrowers (and savers). Fixed rate mortgages were in their infancy in the UK, with the first launched in 1989, and I can’t remember Nationwide offering one back then. Many borrowers were on annual review mortgage schemes, which fixed the monthly payment but not the interest rate for 12 months. If interest rates soared, the borrower had to pay back the extra money owed later.
Suddenly, Keir Starmer has become Britain’s prime minister in waiting. The catastrophic opening weeks of Liz Truss’s premiership has utterly transformed the political weather. Labour’s slow recovery after the disastrous Corbyn years has been turbocharged by the new Tory leader and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. Labour now enjoys a poll lead of up to 33 percent, and is seen by many as the inevitable victor in the next general election, which must be held by January 2025.
Truss and Kwarteng destroyed the Conservatives’ reputation as careful custodians of the British economy with their budget on 23 September. The markets hated the way the former party of sound money planned to borrow billions to fund tax cuts, on top of existing promises to reduce the increase in energy bills and the debt built up during the pandemic. The pound approached parity with the US dollar, and pension funds faced insolvency. Mortgage lenders withdrew home loans from the market as interest rates looked set to soar to protect the value of the pound. Millions of people are worried about the consequences, and blame the already unpopular Tories.
Labour has often been portrayed as the party that presides over financial crises when in government. The party devalued the pound in 1949 and 1967, and famously had to ask the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan in 1976. (Ironically, it turned out that Britain’s finances weren’t as bad as the Treasury warned, and the loan wasn’t needed after all.) Now, it’s a Tory government that is damned by association with the IMF, as the international lender of last resort condemned the party’s budget.
Millions of words have been written about Boris Johnson’s illegal lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street. A nation has expressed its outrage, which will not be assuaged until Johnson resigns as prime minister.
The stories about the May 2020 party, to which over 100 people were invited to bring booze and enjoy the lovely weather, have brought back vivid memories of that extraordinary lockdown spring.
Like almost everyone in Britain, but unlike Johnson and his team, we obeyed the rules. We knew how important this was to keep safe, minimise the spread of the virus and protect the NHS. On my daily exercise, I kept local and was more careful than normal when cycling down steep hills – the last thing I wanted was to put pressure on A&A by crashing.
First there was Watergate. The scandal that eventually brought down American president Richard Nixon was named after the Watergate office building in Washington DC, the site of a burglary in 1972 linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign.
Since then, every scandal – or, in truth, concocted controversy – has had ‘gate’ as a suffix. Partygate – the scandal of illegal parties held at 10 Downing Street during lockdowns – is just the latest.
I’ve always found this a tiresome, lazy journalistic practice. So I was pleased today to see The Times agreeing with me. Rose Wild in her feedback column agreed with a reader, David Simpson, who pleaded with the paper to “stop writers putting ‘gate’ at the end of any scandal”.
Rose responded that The Times style guide discourages the practice as tired and lazy.
The only time I applauded the usage was when the Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign after allegedly abusing police officers at the Downing Street gates in 2012. Gategate was a witty description – but the more common description was plebgate, after Mitchell was accused of calling the police plebs.
I hope Rose’s verdict holds, But I fear lazy journalists will still be calling scandals gates a century after Nixon resigned.
It was a tumultuous time in British politics. Prime minister John Major had just resigned as leader of the Conservative party in a desperate attempt to get his critics to put up or shut up.
All eyes were on Michael Heseltine, whose challenge to Margaret Thatcher in 1990 destroyed the Iron Lady’s premiership. Major’s fate appeared to be in Hezza’s hands. Would he slay another Tory prime minister? No – days later, he affirmed his loyalty to Major, who made him deputy prime minister.
The night I met him, he was in good spirits. The occasion was a reception at B.A.T Industries, the owner of Eagle Star, the insurance company I worked for. We had something in common: when he returned to government under Major as environment secretary he set up a competition called City Challenge. Inner city areas had to bid for funding by partnering with the private sector. I was seconded by B.A.T Industries to Lambeth Council to bid for funding for Brixton. Hezza had reportedly told Lambeth not to bother as jt had no chance. (The Tories had long memories of Lambeth’s left wing leadership in the 1980s under Red Ted Knight.) It seemed a daunting assignment.
Britain was horrified by yesterday’s murder of Sir David Amess – the second member of parliament to be killed in five years, after the tragic loss of Jo Cox in 2016. Police are treating Sir David’s killing as an act of terrorism.
In the meantime, I yearn for an end of the climate of hatred that has developed in British politics in recent years. As I blogged a week ago after the death from cancer of James Brokenshire MP politics has always been a rough trade. But calling your political rivals scum (as Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner did recently in referring to Tories) and enemies of the people and traitors (as populist right wing papers labelled the judiciary and MPs who didn’t support Brexit) is undermining democracy and the rule of law. All amplified by the poisonous echo chamber of social media, which circulates hate speech and lies.
This rancid mix may not have been the spur to the person who ended David Amess’s life. But it makes reasonable debate on crucial but sensitive topics almost impossible.
Britain’s parliamentarians – in Westminster, Cardiff Bay and Holyrood – serve the people tirelessly. A friend recently praised the new MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green, for her superb support on a family matter. Our friend is not a natural Lib Deb voter – but Sarah, like all MPs, is dedicated to serve and help all her constituents, no matter how they voted. MPs, MSs and MSPs have become a social service, far removed to their predecessors years 60 years ago who had far less contact with their constituents. They deserve our support especially when they live in fear after two of their peers have been struck down in the service of the people.
I was sad to read that James Brokenshire MP had died. He was an effective and thoughtful minister, and a role model for anyone wanting to serve their country through politics. I once took part in an event alongside him in the early days of the coalition government.
It was no surprise to see a flood of tributes on social media, but many people struck a jarring note by prefacing their remarks ‘I didn’t agree with his politics but…’ This is crass. It is as if they think people will think badly of them for praising a political opponent. They are hardly risking the opprobrium heaped on Irish leader Eamon de Valera who visited Germany’s representative in Dublin in 1945 to express Ireland’s condolences on Hitler’s death.
Labour’s leaders were much more sensible, paying unreserved tributes to James. Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner were eloquent and generous. Rayner’s comments were far better judged than her vitriol a few days earlier when she described Tories as scum. That was ill judged – Labour needs to win back voters who have switched to the Conservatives, and calling them scum isn’t likely to help.
Politics is a tough trade. Its disciples have been exchanging insults for centuries. But in an age when death threats are regularly made against politicians on social media (and just five years after the murder of Jo Cox MP), let’s be more respectful and choose our words with care.
It’s the same old story. The London media has always ignored and neglected Wales. The Times is a classic example. It has a Scottish edition but never pays Wales the same attention. So I was not surprised to see the Welsh Senedd elections barely reported – and then badly – in today’s iPad edition of the paper. The Saturday news summary above ignores the fascinating and unexpected Senedd election results.
The story The Times did run (above) repeatedly referred to the Welsh Assembly – an institution that no longer exists. The country’s legislature is the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament.
Yet in its obsession with Hartlepool and Holyrood, the London media (with the honourable exception of the BBC and The Guardian) were missing a really significant story. The incumbent parties in government in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Westminster did well. Labour’s Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has won plaudits across these islands for his calm leadership during the pandemic. The Senedd results showed that voters rewarded Labour for its steady hand on the tiller. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon looks to be close to an SNP majority. And, as the London media keep telling us, Boris Johnson has dealt a blow to Labour’s UK leader Keir Starmer by capturing another traditional Labour parliamentary seat in Hartlepool. But the story is rather more nuanced even in England.
25 years ago today, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister. She bowed to the inevitable after her cabinet finally rebelled against her autocratic rule.
I blogged at length about Britain’s first woman prime minister when she died in 2013. I titled that post ‘the woman who changed Britain’ – which she did, for both good and ill. She was a force of nature, unlike almost all of her successors. Only Tony Blair came close.
I’m no Corbyn supporter or Labour party member, but I find it breathtaking that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown have the cheek to lecture people on whom to vote for. While they created an election winning machine and made voting Labour fashionable – for which they deserve great praise – their deadly feud threw away the huge opportunity that Labour had to transform Britain after May 1997. Brown was the worst culprit, obsessed by a corrosive sense of betrayal at Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994. He took every opportunity to undermine Blair, while Blair always shrank away from moving Brown from the Treasury, for fear of the consequences. Yet Labour and Britain paid a heavy price for this tragically dysfunctional government.