One the reasons I left England is because I reached a point in my life in Albion where I could only move forward. However it meant a major cultural clash that I could not overcome: the long-term implications of settling down for, in England, it means one thing: living with the money you do not have, will never have and yet are made to spend constantly.
In the 1990s, when studying the US at school, I remember reading speeches from American politicians, even presidents and representatives, talking about the fact that a real American has to buy. Materialism is a blessing for it moves the economy forward, it helps the country. At the end of the Cold War, America has definitely merged patriotism and capitalism: buying is an act of patriotism. Saving, long-term things…that’s for commies, they have five-year plans over there, America lives in the moment.
Sarkozy tried that in France. Two months before the crisis began he told the French to “stop saving their money and buy instead”, a definite shift of the French right to the Republican American right’s view of the world. Nobody cared for that and we kept saving for later.
So as a Frenchman, I have always been absolutely staggered and left speechless by my English friends who seem to be spending and using money like it’s the most available, abundant thing found in Nature. How American of them, I thought!
I have had former Sixth-Form students (both 20) who were proudly displaying pictures of their new house on Facebook. A two-floured, semi-detached house in Birmingham that cost them more than £270,000 (for two 20-year-olds!!) when he’s a trainee engineering and she is at uni and they barely got engaged! My mother bought a huge, three-floured house with a massive garden in the historical, posh centre of Dreux for €125,000. That was after she saved for 20 years and looked for the perfect for five years. I did not understand.
Then I had a colleague who bought a brand new car as a gift for herself after she got her PGCE, she was not even a qualified teacher yet! Another colleague who bought a house with her five-month boyfriend, broke up, cried because she did know how she will cope with all the expenses, had to ask for money to the school and arrived on Monday with a big smile: “Look at that dress I bought this weekend. £600, I know shouldn’t have but it’s so cute…”.
Where do they find all that money? I know, the banks are giving them the money but why? And why are people buying cars and houses when they are barely 20, just got their degrees or have just found a non-permanent job? The cultural shock.
In England, you don’t have to buy, you have the Right to Buy, created and hammered by Tories since 1980s. In a society where everyone tries to emulate the aristocracy (the highest reward is to be made a lord), ownership has become the symbol of freedom. You are a true citizen if you own what you have. You are a patrician. Otherwise you’re the plebe, you depend on somebody else, you cannot lift your condition. With Margaret Thatcher, the shift Sarkozy tried to apply in France did happen in England. The wealth-craving, rich-obsessed middle class came to power, bankrolled by richer than them, and so did their ideas of a Cold-war democracy that could only be understood through the spectrum of capitalism: the enemy of capitalism is the enemy of democracy. And their narrow idea of capitalism involves two things: owning and wanting more. An idea deeply rooted in the power-fading English-speaking world.
So in England, there are two types of people: the ones who believe that, to be free, you have to own, you have to spend without counting; and the people who don’t believe it but are resigned to it. At the end, they all follow the system.
When I asked my manager why she was buying so early (she was 27), she said: “Well, today, you have to go on the property ladder very early. You buy a crappy house for a lot of money, you take a mortgage, then you do it up a bit and after a few years, you can sell it for £20- to £50,000 more so you can get a slightly better house. And maybe, after 20 years, you’ll get the house of your dream.”
“Why do you sell it?” I asked, “Can’t you just make it your own?”.
“No because they are shit! The neighbourhood is shit, the schools are shit, the house itself is falling apart because no one wants it. It was quickly build for factory workers in the 1800! You don’t want to raise your kids in there…So you sell it for more to afford the next one”.
“So someone is going to buy the same crappy house but for £50,000 more?”
“That’s how it works and that’s why you have to go early, otherwise you find yourself buying a shit house for £300,000 when it would barely be worth £70,000 in France.”
I can’t. I could not. I will never be able to live like that. These people are not free: they are bankers, estate agents. Their whole life is about planning the next financial move, checking property value and not just living in but owning a place they don’t like just because there might be what they actually want at the end of the line. That’s the idea of freedom?
And the money! A life on mortgage, they think they are free because they are called “owners” and the government only speak to and about them. The nation is all about them: the house-owning people, the ones who own land, like the aristocracy. It is baffling to see Westminster’s complete disregard for renters: “If they were hard-working, they’d have a house by now” is the mantra.
The others have made it, they lifted their condition but at what price? Their freedom to decide for themselves because unlike the aristocracy who manages to stay afloat, they have been sucked in the system, are now stuck in the speeding wheels, tethered by their mortgage and loans for decades: a real Damocles’ sword above their brand new IKEA throne in the living-room.
When I mentioned that I was changing careers at 30, every teacher in the school was telling how they wished they could do the same. “Why not?” I would say. “There is the mortgage”, they’d reply. And I understood, they are free because they have the things: a car so they don’t have to rely on public transports, a house so their money is not wasted away to some stranger. When in fact what they actually have is a mortgage on the car, a mortgage on the second car, a mortgage on the house and a couple of loans to pay back on the money they borrowed to go to Spain and the new I-phone 5 for the kids at Christmas. A life build on numbers that seem to add up to infinity, they feel. They could not afford Spain and the phones but it’s not about what you can afford, it’s about lifting your condition, aspiring to higher grounds, and the banks and Wonga said they will always help you. Who rents? Who uses public transport? Who goes caravaning in Dorset? Who offers action figures for Xmas anymore? The lower class. God forbid!
In France, it is notoriously difficult to find a mortgage, sometimes to the point of ridicule, but at least companies like Wonga are not allowed to advertise for quick loans during children programmes or advertise all together, there are caps and restrictions everywhere on borrowing money so we don’t lose control because we are not all bankers for a living. But it’s mostly so we don’t get to think that ownership is the only way to freedom.
We are not the only ones in fact, a rich country like Switzerland will see 70% of its population renting when the poorer countries in the world can boast 80 to 90% of house ownership. The fact is: regulating on renting demands a very high-level of democracy and state organisation so people in richer countries will tend to rent whereas people in poorer countries will be the owners of their run-down house.
In England, renting is a nightmare. I had done it for seven years: flat on my own or with an actual friend, house sharing, live-in landlords…Only for one year when the agency told us they were managing the flat did I feel safe and secure. The reason is, there is no regulation in England: no laws, no office, no institution that dictate some basic rules, some rights and have-tos between landlords and tenants like we do in France or Germany, where a very large proportion of the population is renting. In England, it’s not uncommon to have a landlord that comes to see you after a year and ask for an extra £100 every month for the next year and if you don’t think it’s fair, you’re out.
From the landlord’s point of view, the demand in renting is so huge, and the offer and regulation so weak that there will always be someone ready to pay that price, so why not? From the politicians and rulers’ point of view, if the landlord asks for an extra £100, he must have a good reason. Capitalism regulates itself and its agents know where the boundaries are so every is fine. When they don’t, the bubble bursts, but that’s normal, it’s how capitalism regulates itself.
No! That’s how Cold-war, Britain’s and former colonies’ capitalism works and now that it stands “undefeated”, this form of capitalism has become as genuine and honest as Stalinist communism. It became some kind of negative of the what it was fighting.
In France, a landlord will have to justify it. Being an apparent provider in capitalism doesn’t make you unaccountable. If the landlord wants an extra monthly £100, he will be asked to prove he did some improvement to the place, for instance, something that would amount to costing an extra £100 every month for the people who live there. You cannot just ask for some more money like this!
If the landlord kicks you out, who are you supposed to talk to in England when only owners are considered and praised? In France, the state has various institutions where you can go and ask for help for free because it’s a matter of social peace, which is the first mission of the state. In England the state believes “people will be reasonable”, i.e. it can’t be asked, so there is nothing, you just take your stuff and find some other place. For an immigrant, even “just from France” who has no family in England and lives in Birmingham, when all his friends are in London, this is a terrifying prospect.
I am not saying that everything is perfect and rosy on the continent. If a place were perfect, everybody would be living there already but in England, I was stuck between the uncertainties of unregulated, overlooked renting that burdens your life, and becoming a “real citizen” tethered and unable to make decisions for myself because of the money I spent, yet never owned, for I was afraid to be perceived as lower class.
So I left.