At what point do I tell my child that life just isn't fair?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Larry and I are feeding the ducks in the park when I spot something out of the corner of my eye. What is that? I squint and peer, and eventually walk over to the plastic bag glistening in the sunlight by the side of the pond. It is full of lamb chops. Raw, sweaty, slightly greenish lamb chops.
 
My stomach heaves and rage rises up in my chest. What kind of beast dumps a bagful of raw lamb chops in a public park? The same kind of beast that rips up the daffodils planted by local schoolchildren. The same kind of beast who lets their horrible slavering Staffie shit all over the children’s playground. The same kind of beast who is still drilling for fossil fuel even though the human race is headed for a slow, hideous extinction. What is wrong with humans? We seem determined to make life unpleasant for ourselves.
 
“What is that?”
 
“It’s nothing, bubs. Somebody has left some meat in the park, that’s all.”
 
“Why?” Larry is going through a “why” phase.
 
“I don’t know. People do strange things. Sometimes they do things that aren’t very nice.”
 
“Why?”
 
I have been wondering when and how to introduce Larry to the idea that people are often complete idiots. Brutal honesty is my new policy. Middle-class mothers spend too much time telling their children to be nice, to share, not to hit anybody, to say please and thank you, not to drop litter in the street, or tease cats, or stomp on worms. I feel we should prepare our offspring a little better for the harsh, selfish, brutal and misguided reality they will inevitably face at some point.
 
Yet, before I can say anything, I feel a tear trickle down my cheek and disappear into the collar of my coat. What is going on? I wipe it away quickly. But then there’s another one, and another, and before I know it I am crying, really proper snotty unstoppable crying.
 
“Mummy, what’s the matter?”
 
“Don’t worry, darling, I’m fine.”
 
But I’m not, that much is obvious because my mouth gapes and I have to cover it with my hand before I start to dribble. The truth is, I haven’t been feeling too good recently. Perhaps it’s because Moe hasn’t been sleeping, or because Curly and I haven’t been getting on, or because I’ve been trying to work too much, or because the house thing fell through and now we’re going to be stuck in our slightly-too-small-flat for evermore. I don’t know. I wish it would all just go away.
 
Larry stares at me, puzzled. He’s lost some of his baby chub and his features are starting to take on the more defined angles of a little boy. The thought that he will one day grow up sends me into another round of ribcageracking sobs.
 
“Hey, you know what?” He scoots over to the buggy where Moe is lying asleep and rummages around until he finds the stained and tattered rag he has been sleeping with since he was a baby. “You need blankie.” 

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle