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Shared baths and extra jumpers: Brits stare down cost of living crisis worsened by Russia

Shoppers browsed at Tony’s stall at Ridley Road Market in Hackney, East London. Many in Britain are struggling to pay their bills.Mary Turner for The Boston Globe

LONDON — As she smoked a cigarette near the bright bolts of textiles piled at the entrance to the fabric shop where she works, Donna Shanahan thought about all the insidious ways in which her life has recently become more expensive.

The lamb chops she used to buy two of for £8 now cost £9 (around $11.75), she said. Inflation has pushed the cost of basic items up, so fewer things at Poundland — the local equivalent of a dollar store — still seem to cost one pound. And, as the cost of energy rises, she is trying to conserve what she can.

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“We always do switch off our plug sockets. He gets in the bath after me,” she said, referring to her husband. “You don’t use the tumble dryer.”

The mounting costs have left her frustrated with the government and skeptical of its sanctions on Russia, which have exacerbated some of the rising costs.

Daniel Walsh, a butcher at the family-run James Elliot Butchers in the Islington neighborhood, said energy companies should sacrifice as much as regular people.Mary Turner for The Boston Globe

“No, I don’t think it’s worth it,” Shanahan said of the sanctions.

Great Britain, like Europe and the United States, was in the throes of an inflation spike even before Russia invaded its neighbor Ukraine, leaving destroyed cities and death in its wake. The conflict has put more pressure on already-skyrocketing energy costs here, with prices rising the fastest in three decades and the standard of living poised to make its steepest drop since the 1950s. The United Kingdom places limits on price increases for energy, but even there, the cap rose by 54 percent in April, a sudden shock to household budgets that has fueled worries that families will be forced to decide whether to “heat or eat.”

“People obviously are going to face choices that they are going to have to make,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this month, expressing what his opponents have cast as a belated acknowledgement of people’s pain. “We in the government will do everything that we can to help.”

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The rapidly rising prices here and abroad pose political peril for Johnson and other world leaders who are part of the reinvigorated Western alliance punishing Russia for its invasion. The war is expected to worsen inflation and dampen economic gains both in the United States and the European Union this year, the International Monetary Fund predicted on Tuesday, with the UK slated to face the worst inflation of any advanced economy.

Polls show Britons are consumed with worry about the rising prices. Johnson’s Conservative party is polling below the opposition Labour Party and is expected to lose hundreds of seats in local elections scheduled for May.

Stall owner Tony arranged bowls of ginger which are on sale at Ridley Road Market in Hackney, East London.Mary Turner for The Boston Globe

“Voters are not happy about inflation and falling real wages,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor at Kings College London and former government economist, “and so far, they’re not happy about the government’s response.”

In the United States, President Biden’s attempts to pin rising gas prices on the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, have done little to staunch his bleeding poll numbers. In Europe, which is more reliant on Russian energy, the fallout could be even bigger. Amid the economic malaise in France, President Emmanuel Macron is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from far-right candidate Marine Le Pen — an isolationist who admires Putin and who pledged to yank France out of NATO’s military command if she wins. And Germany, which relies heavily on Russia for energy, risks a recession if it cuts off Russia’s oil, natural gas, and coal too fast.

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It all amounts to the potential for domestic upheaval at a delicate and difficult moment for global politics, and a warning to conservative and liberal leaders alike that brewing economic discontent could threaten their own popularity and even the NATO alliance itself if they can’t find a way to contain the pain.

Here in England, polls have shown many Britons are willing to take a financial hit if it means helping Ukraine. This is, after all, a country that turned pride for the ration books and homefront sacrifices of World War II into the stuff of national lore. But there are some signs support for the sanctions is trending downward.

Customers browsed fresh fish for sale at the PM Prime Fish, at Ridley Road Market in Hackney, East London.Mary Turner for The Boston Globe

And in interviews at bustling markets and brick-and-mortar businesses feeling the pinch, there is deep skepticism that the burden is being shared equally, and frustration at the economic pain that long predated the invasion.

“I think we’d all rather we was chipping in for rifles than making the oil companies rich,” said Gerrard Matthews, 64, a driver of one of London’s iconic black taxis, who said his fuel costs have risen by a third.

As Matthews’s cab rumbled over the streets of Central London last week, then past the stately facades of Marylebone in a city awash with astonishing wealth, a green air freshener swung from the ceiling emblazoned with the wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It was something he seemed to be trying to do. “It is what it is, innit?” Matthews said.

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But experts caution against making overly simplistic comparisons between this moment and World War II, particularly because there is so far a marked difference in how much governments seem willing to do, compared to back then.

“During the Second World War, there was far more of a sense that the government [was] willing to kind of take action to control this,” said Lucy Noakes, a historian at the University of Essex who studies the social and cultural history of war. “The government stepped in and controlled the prices, and of course also, there was rationing . . . that was basically the same for everyone, from the prime minister to the cleaner to the coal miner.”

The crunch was evident at the heaving market on Ridley Road, a warren of stalls and faded tarps in London’s Dalston neighborhood that has long attracted immigrant shoppers and merchants — and anyone looking for a deal on anything from food, clothing, gleaming cooking pots, and even sparklers.

“One pound, any bowl a pound,” yelled one merchant who stood behind a table piled high with clear plastic bowls brimming with apples, pears, or ginger. “Quality for a pound!”

The merchant, who gave his name as Tony, said the rising energy prices had pushed his business to the brink — and, he worried, could hurt the farmers he buys from, too.

“They have been up 20 percent. If we go up to 25, we are out of business. Not just us. Where am I going to get my fruits?” he said.

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Choudhry Amjad, a software engineer who had donned a white coat to help his father sell fish from a small stall that morning, said every commodity at the market had gotten more expensive. He took a long knife to a pale fish called a coley, using a wooden mallet to break through the bone and cut it into steaks. A cheap alternative to cod, even this workhorse fish has more than doubled in price, he said, to £5 per kilo.

“Every single fish has gone up in price,” he said, as two women examined bowls of frozen mackerel.

Half a mile away, Hasan Uzun, the owner of a quarter-century-old, fastidiously clean fish and chip shop called Micky’s Chippy, lamented all the ways that running his business has recently become more expensive. His energy bills have doubled. The wrapping paper, which he curls around vinegar-covered fries and battered fish like a florist wrapping a bouquet, now costs £11.99 per pack, up from £5.99 plus tax, he said. And he said the fish he used to buy for £110 per case now costs £235 — a price that could spike even higher, if a temporarily postponed tariff on whitefish imported from Russia goes into effect.

“This is my only business. I’m not planning to be a billionaire,” said Uzun, who believes that suppliers are taking advantage of the moment to rip off their customers and that the government is failing to keep them accountable. “We want the government to stand behind us.”

For the moment, an ethos of conservation has taken hold. Noakes, the historian at Essex, has turned the heat down and wears extra “jumpers,” or sweaters, at home. And at James Elliott Butchers in London’s tony Islington neighborhood, the four refrigerators used to store meat downstairs have now been consolidated to two.

Daniel Walsh, a butcher at the family-run shop, read off a text message from his beef supplier: “More dreary news, I’m afraid,” the supplier wrote, before explaining he was raising prices yet again.

Walsh believes the sanctions on Russia don’t go far enough, that they are “half-hearted,” and that energy companies should sacrifice as much as regular people. But he’s not sure that voting out Britain’s current leadership will change anything.

“Same meat, different gravy,” he said. “That’s a good quote from a butcher, isn’t it?”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.