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Should I give up and marry a banker?

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

I mean, it makes me think – should I just give up and marry a bloody banker?” Lizzie furrows her brow and swirls her wine furiously around the glass. I almost choke on my moussaka. These are not words that I ever expected to hear issuing from my best friend’s lips. This is the girl who shares her squatted studio space with a shaman; who stays true to her anti-private-property principles by constantly nicking my clothes. The day Lizzie marries a banker is the day the final nail is banged into the coffin of the hippie dream.

I have cooked Lizzie a wholesome meal because her heart is broken. She has just split up with her boyfriend – a glorious, penniless man with whom she spent several happy years hitchhiking around India, skinny-dipping in reservoirs and attending festivals wearing fully anatomically correct monkey suits. But she’s 33 now and she’s begun to feel the fear.

“I know I should want to bring up my family in a tepee in Wales,” she sniffs. “But the older I get, the more I realise . . . I just don’t.” The problem with the hippie dream is that at some point it bumps up against the hippie reality, which is often cold, wet and poor. Even that might be all right for a while, as long as you were fairly confident that you’d be warm, dry and rich sometime in the future. You just really, really don’t want chilliness and poverty to become permanent features of your lifestyle choice.

Over dinner we are tackling the big question: who next? Does she bail completely on the hippie shit and plump for a stockbroker with a detached house in Surrey and a nice line in shiny suits? Or follow the path of true love, regardless of material considerations? I have had a couple of glasses of wine and find myself full of practical advice.

“If I had my time again,” I say philosophically, “I’d put money much further up the wish list. Of course, it’s nice to be in love, blah blah. But you might as well admit that a relationship is not just about soppy stuff, it’s an economic arrangement. Read Jane Austen: at least in those days they were upfront about it. Nowadays we are made to feel ashamed of wanting to marry a man who will take care of us materially.”

No sooner have the words left my mouth than a hideous thought occurs to me. What if Lizzie follows my advice and finds some stinking-rich sugar daddy who sorts her out with a terraced house in Islington with an open-plan kitchen and wisteria over the door? What if her kids get to go to private school and learn debating and Latin, while my state-educated brood is left semi-literate and unemployable?

What if she’s able to give up paid employment and dedicate her time to art and charitable works?

It would be more than I could bear. The comforting knowledge that Lizzie is even broker than me is fundamental to my sanity.

I take another gulp of red and clear my throat. “On the other hand . . .”

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 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.