When I peruse what is left on shop clothes' rails at sale time I can't help feeling a bit proud of myself and my fellow-countrywomen. Even in slovenly Britain, there are some items that are just too ugly and some colours just too dire to find a buyer at any price. Now that sales happen almost year-round, that twice-yearly fix of reassurance is not quite what it was. But I've just discovered some new seasonal proof of the nation's good sense, and it is to be found in – of all places – the latest Bank of England statistics.
We British, it seems, have used the long run of extra-low interest rates to pay off our mortgages. The figures show that in less than three years, Britons have reduced the cumulative housing debt by more than £57bn, and quarter by quarter the pay-off has accelerated, reaching a record £7bn in the last three months of 2010. "Britons," one headline put it, "stock up piggy bank in tough times". All in all, we remain more indebted than most Europeans and our savings rate is low, but it's higher now than it was during the economic boom.
But what thanks do we get for our prudence? This newspaper described the "record pay-off" as "an ominous development for house prices and spending on the high street". Others saw the figures as "disappointing" or "worrying". You see, rather than paying off our debts, we should have been out there shopping and racking up new debts – at today's bargain low interest rates – for the greater good of the economy.
Most commentators sounded frustrated at the sheer financial witlessness of middle Britain, despite forecasts that mortgage interest rates could well be on the rise soon. Households, one said, "are still sticking their money away in savings accounts which lose ground against inflation". Of course we are. What other risk-averse choice is there, when even National Savings & Investments (good old National Savings as we once knew it) is drawing some pre-emptive flak for trying to help. Apparently, it may reintroduce its "inflation-proofed" bonds – and good for them. But one report accused NS&I of preparing "to poach billions of pounds of the nation's savings" – that would be poaching from whom exactly? – and a move that could "suck all the liquidity out of the system". Now who, I wonder, was it that "sucked all the liquidity out of the system" before? Aren't we owed just a bit of interest?
If the Bank of England's figures are anything to go by, my fellow Britons and I are making the best we can of a very bad job. It's not scolding we deserve, but congratulations – and ordinary households should be held up by the Chancellor as the very model of what he is trying to do.
Impaled on an Oxford spire
Oh no, here we go again, and David Cameron doesn't even have the excuse – bull-headed ignorance of the place – that Gordon Brown had when he reached his ill-informed conclusions about Laura Spence and why she was rejected. Cameron spent three years of his life at Oxford University and, for all the disreputable high-jinks between tutorials, he emerged with a more than decent degree. An Eton schooling may help to get you in, but it doesn't guarantee you a first. So he's not stupid either.
Where he was stupid was in co-opting the views of David Lammy MP about how difficult it is for black boys to get into Oxford, especially black boys of a Caribbean background, and turning them to the Government's political advantage.
Let's get some things straight. It's not easy for anyone to get into Oxford. It's especially not easy if you have not been to a good school (and black boys, especially of Caribbean background, often haven't). The trouble with Oxford is not, as its detractors assume, racist elitism, but the de facto segregation by race and class in our schools and this government's illusion that academies, free schools etc will make up for opportunities lost with the demise of grammar schools.
If Oxford (and a host of other British universities) have erred, it is in their single-minded pursuit of high-achieving foreign students – for the fees – when they could have been agitating about the scandalous apartheid of schools at home and trying to do something about it. By the way, I wonder how many black Caribbean students went to Cambridge in 2009?
What's in a name? Not always what you think
Experian, a credit-rating agency, whose business is more flatteringly described as "data-mining", was commissioned to anticipate the results of the census by plotting demographic trends by surnames. The findings suggested that successful immigrants aspire to live in the same quiet leafy spaces as their British-born peers. Places with detached houses, gardens and good schools. Surprise, you might say, surprise. But there are traps here for the unwary.
Take the Labour MP, Denis MacShane, and me. With our mutual interest in things European, we periodically meet at the same events – where I regularly find myself assumed to be Russian, or perhaps at a stretch Polish, and Denis is assumed to be Scottish/British. Neither is true. Denis is the Polish one, at least he's half-Polish, through his father, and took his Irish mother's name. I, on the other hand, am English as English can be, and acquired my name through marriage – to an American born to Russian émigré parents. You can make of this what you will, but there are many ways of acquiring surnames, and they don't always carry the significance Experian and so many others presume.Reuse content