Labour seems to have no intention of providing shelter for those unable to provide it for themselves – and one reason is that we don't really want it to
Jonathan Miller's knighthood was awarded for "services to the arts". It should have been awarded for political prescience. Only a few weeks after Labour's 1997 landslide he observed that "we have voted out a bunch of petty crooks and have voted in an advertising agency". And so it has proved.

This has been, and remains, a government that conducts campaigns. In one regard it is an unusual advertising agency, for what it seeks to sell is itself. Otherwise it is all too standard issue. We are all inured to advertisements that are preposterously out of kilter with the products they aim to sell. Drink A and you'll turn into a handsome prince. Drive B and you'll be the cynosure of every eye on the Côte d'Azur. There is a gulf between aspiration and actuality. We know this, yet we are still susceptible; we are credulous despite ourselves. Advertisements pander to our vanity, to our covert fantasies and collective fears.

There has always existed a conviction that advertising is a sort of insidious plot against the public. A more credible proposition is that, if there is a plot, it is one in which the public is complicit. The government, with its longing to be loved, is apprised of this. It promises the electorate what it knows is wanted. And its campaigns – although not of course their woeful delivery – are a fairly accurate gauge of this country's preoccupations.

Health: we want some of that. Public transport: yup, we're all in favour of it – even though nobody ever gets on a bus if it can be avoided. Crime: must be stopped. Education: a good thing, everyone agrees – apart from kiddies who prefer truanting, joyriding and dealing crack.

Now – what's missing?

Our indifference to the lack of social housing implies that we are indeed all Thatcherites now

Housing, that's what. And its absence would suggest that we are curiously unbothered about it. Our indifference to the lack of provision of social housing suggests a collective callousness; it implies that we are indeed all Thatcherites now, that we blithely subscribe to the sauve qui peut mindset of the 1980s, even as we profess to abhor the governmentally sanctioned greed of that decade. This greed was never more manifest than in the selling off of much of the nation's social housing stock. In those days, social housing was called council housing. Council flats, council blocks – the very epithets were as socially divisive as, say, the 11-plus. But injurious as it is, social division is to be preferred to homelessness.

The welfare state can be seen as the nationalisation of noblesse oblige, the institutionalisation of paternalism, the centralisation of philanthropy. The high-minded herbivores who founded it were of a generation that had grown up with direct experience of last-gasp feudalism and of employers who built housing for their workers. No doubt government and local authorities would be delighted if British plutocrats of the early 21st century were to acquire the social responsibility and pragmatic magnanimity of Robert Owen, William Lever, George Cadbury and their ilk. Fat chance. Even were there the will, such a solution would be pointless because of the labour market's transience. (The only people who have jobs for life today are wrinkly rock stars.)

The de facto dismantling of that arm of the welfare state that sheltered those unable to shelter themselves has caused a shameful void, unique in western Europe. Britain is (and the two are hardly unconnected) also unique in the importance it attaches to property ownership.

The socially enlightened work of housing associations, of Peabody and Rowntree to name but two, sets an example. But it's an exceptional example that proves the rule. It's much too little, much too late – we have, after all, suffered a 20-year hiatus in creating social or affordable housing. And the ideological insistence on deference to market forces means that what is, at last, being built is often for sale or part-ownership.