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Squeezed Middle: Cheesed off and strapped for cash

Broke-ness crept up on me stealthily, like adulthood.

How did I get here (not here, our local branch of 99p Stores – I walked – but here in life), I can’t help but ask myself, as I pause next to a shelf of no-brand tortilla chips and glance from one hand to the other? In my left I have some organic mature cheddar, purchased minutes ago in Sainsbury’s for £2.90. In my right, I have a packet exactly the same size with “Signature . . . A Cheese to Please” emblazoned across it. Price: 99p.

When and how did I become a person who notices the price of cheese? Let alone a person who considers returning a block of organic cheddar to Sainsbury’s and purchasing a cheese product of questionable provenance from 99p Stores, for the sake of saving £1.91?

It didn’t happen overnight. Broke-ness crept up on me stealthily, like adulthood and the ability to enjoy The Archers. Four years ago, I was throwing money around like Paris Hilton on speed. I’d buy ridiculous dresses and only wear them once, go on holidays to Brazil, spend £50 in one night on cocktails. I rarely bothered to check my bank balance, let alone stick to a budget.

Then I had two children and the economy hit the skidders almost simultaneously. I had never believed people who told me that kids were expensive. A baby only needs a drawer to sleep in and a few nappies, doesn’t it? Well, no. Kids also need somewhere to live and that is currently extortionately, cruelly expensive. Kids need you to look after them, and they don’t even pay you a minimum wage. If you try and earn some money, they need childcare, which costs as much as, or more, than you earn. Your household income is halved and then halved again, while your outgoings are doubling, tripling . . . it’s your basic, reliable recipe for economic meltdown.

I look back to the cheese. I originally bought not just Sainsbury’s cheddar but organic Sainsbury’s cheddar. Worrying about money all the time is so boring. I add variety with the full range of traditional middle-class worries: harmful chemicals in the food chain, the fairness or otherwise of trade, intensive farming, the destruction of hedgerows . . .

A woman in a bobble hat pushes past me, heading for the Baby Goods section. She loads two boxes of toxic-looking fragranced nappy bags into her basket. Her daughter, dressed head-to-toe in pink, is clutching a bumper bag of Haribo. It must be bliss not to worry so much. Baby crying? Feed her Haribo! Can’t be faffed to wash smelly nappies? Wrap them in plastic and stick them in the ground! Short on cash? Get a City job, flog dodgy financial products, retire at 35, job’s a good ’un.

Perhaps that should be my New Year’s resolution: 2013 will be the year of sod it all. Decisively, I drop the packet of Signature . . . A Cheese to Please into my basket and inch my overloaded double buggy towards the checkout.


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 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.