The morality of free school meals

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

The main problem with the government giving in over free school meals during the holidays — other than that it is immoral and unconservative, neither of which have been bars to Conservative policy-making in the past — is that it is a hostage to fortune. What if, next week, another highly paid professional footballer — Tottenham’s Harry Winks, for example, or Liverpool’s Joe Gomez — decides that the nation’s children should also be given by the taxpayer elevenses and high tea?

Such a campaign would generate enormous traction, especially among the affluent. Newspapers would feel unable to resist. Come on, Prime Minister, how can you deny a starving child his right to a scone with some cream and strawberries? And someone would dig up a photo of Boris eating a scone. A scone which any decent person must agree would be better off in the gut of a child, preferably a Liverpudlian child with grime on its face, ribcage showing, but still possessed of a hilariously cheeky wit. How dare that callous albino buffoon eat scones when this is happening? And the radio phone-in shows would be full of scone-envy. Some hack would print a menu from the House of Commons tea rooms showing quite clearly the legend ‘scones with jam and cream’. Greedy fat scone-munching scum, while our children are dying.

And so, ineluctably, the taxpayers will fork out for elevenses and high tea. At which point the next very highly paid footballer comes along — Jordan Pickford of Everton, say — to decry what is happening to the nation’s puppies in this Covid-stricken era. They, too, are starving. The Kibble Campaign is very quickly launched — but then dies a rather swift death. If you fail to feed your dog properly the RSPCA will come along and take it away. When it comes to doggies, you are beholden by law to act responsibly and humanely. There is no such law to prevent the perpetually feckless, the bone idle, the inconceivably dense and the selfish from siring half a dozen children and then spending the last few quid of their state benefits on a Sky subscription and half an hour in the tanning salon. ‘Nowt for tea today, lads, but at least your ma’s bright orange.’

I have nothing against Marcus Rashford. It is rather cheering to see an overpaid kid both grateful for his good fortune (and abilities) and determined to use his profile to make the world a better place, as he sees it, rather than inhaling hippy crack or posting photographs of his new Ferrari. His finishing has tailed off a little of late, you have to say — that wonderful early promise diminishing ever so slightly year on year. But that happens to all of our young footballers. One moment they are the next Lionel Messi or Thierry Henry, the next they are just kind of OK. A weight descends upon them, somehow, and the verve departs. My guess is untold affluence has something to do with it: we are adept at linking poverty to every possible example of human waywardness but are less inclined to examine the consequences of outlandish affluence.

Still, not his fault and he has conducted his campaign with humility and eloquence, two qualities rarely found among Premier League footballers. He has spoken of how he remembers his mother crying herself to sleep for lack of money, which is a horrible image and it is to this young man’s credit that it stayed with him. But that would have been — almost certainly — under a Labour government, and never in our history have we handed out free school meals during holidays. Even Lenin wouldn’t have done that (quite the reverse, indeed). So the argument that this is the Tories deliberately stamping down upon the poor has no basis in reality. They may be doing so in other ways, but not in this particular way. It is a canard, even if it is the main trope of every lefty’s post on social media.

I found myself entirely alone, railing against the free school meals stuff. Even the Conservative party members suggested that Boris would be wise to perform his 943rd U-turn and give in when faced with the Rashford business: in the grand scheme of things, it is not so very much money, all things considered, they would suggest with great weariness. It makes political sense, they argued. It will stop the awful screaming. No, it won’t. It won’t. Nothing will ever stop the screaming from the left. Give in now and they’ll simply say he was forced to — and then they will begin the attack from another angle.

I think my Tory friends are wrong both pragmatically and morally, though. They have been captured by the howl-round, the confected furore — a product of social media and those phone-ins. Rather, it may will be that Boris and co have got the politics of this dead right, regardless of what the newspaper headlines might say.

I checked out a few social media sites — several football fan forums, for example — and I cannot remember having witnessed such fury and outrage over a political issue. In the main these sites are dominated by what we used to call the ‘deserving poor’: hard-working, working-class people who believe that they have ‘done the right thing’. They waited until they had enough money before having kids. They brought only one or two kids into this fractious world. They stay married and they stayed working: for the sake of the children. They don’t eat out much but cook decent meals for the family. They struggled and still struggle — but did the right thing.

Absolutely nothing rankles with this tranche of the population more than the idea of the bone-idle wasters next door given another handout: their own money siphoned off in taxes to support the utterly idle and irresponsible. That’s your red wall voters. A silent majority.

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