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Did Buddha have to put up with this?

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

I am sitting in the middle of the living room floor doing my “mindfulness” meditation. This is a new thing for me. Recently, my stress levels have been off the chart. I must have more than a million things to worry about.

First, the condition of the roof struts in the house we are moving in to; where on earth we are going to find builders at such short notice; whether we should be moving at all, considering the house is derelict and too close to a major ring road; how on earth I’m going to pack all the boxes with a baby and a toddler needing my constant attention.

Then there’s whether and how and when I should go back to work; whether if I do go back I will be made redundant; whether if I get made redundant I will find another job before we default on the mortgage and lose our home; whether I should start giving the baby puréed food or follow the trendy new “baby-led weaning” regime; whether the toddler should go to nursery more, so I can do more work, or less, so I can spend more time with the children.

As if the actual things I have to worry about are not enough, I also like to fret over a selection of state-of-the-world issues that are completely beyond my control. The perilous state of the environment, mainly, but there are others.

I realised it was time to take up meditation when I found myself lying awake at four in the morning worrying about the economy and the rise of China.

So here I am, kneeling on the rug, trying to focus on my breaths and count to seven. In . . . and out, in . . . and out. Unfortunately, because our flat is slightly too small and every room other than the bathroom and kitchen has a sleeping child in it, I am having to do this in the same room as Curly, who is sitting on the sofa behind me watching a very violent-sounding film.

In . . . and out. In . . . and out.


I’m guessing that’s an explosion, followed by a round of machine-gun fire. But I will not be deterred. Buddha wouldn’t have been put off by a little background noise, would he? In . . . and out. In . . . and out.

“Oooh, ouch.” Curly remarks, as the horrible sound of crunching cartilage fills the room. But that’s fine. I feel so calm that it really doesn’t matter what he is doing. This is about me, not about anyone else. In . . . and out. In . . . and out.

BOOOOOM, CRUNCH. On the other hand, I bet Buddha did not have to put up with this kind of provocation. Wasn’t he sitting under a nice, peaceful tree somewhere when he reached enlightenment? Would he ever have got there under these conditions?

Suddenly, there’s a lot of shouting and then a man’s voice: “I’M GOING TO F*** YOUR MOTHER’S A*** IN HELL!”

This is more than I can take. “For God’s sake, can’t I get a minute’s peace in this sodding house?” I stomp out of the room, slamming the door behind me. I think enlightenment is still some way off.

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 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.