As a Man Utd fan I take much pleasure watching Marcus Rashford on the pitch. He has skill, speed, character, and a tendency to score important goals – one of those rare footballers who can impose his will upon the game.
It is every bit as compelling and genuinely affecting watching him impose that will on the bedraggled defenders of the Conservative Party.
Rashford is 22, still a baby in footballing terms, and yet he is inspiring communities and businesses across the country to step in and feed children who, through no fault of their own, have started out in life as he did – disadvantaged children who are already several steps behind, whose future prospects are rapidly narrowing, and who in this school meals farrago have found themselves abandoned for ideological rather than financial reasons by Boris Johnson’s government.
If you can do one thing for me tonight, sign the petition 👇🏾https://t.co/FvvpO71zOv
It’s time we put party politics aside and worked together to find a long-term sustainable solution to child food poverty in the UK.
Implement the 3 asks.
I appreciate you all ♥️
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) October 20, 2020
Sometimes politics requires you to set aside your copy of The Road To Serfdom and read the room instead. Jackson Carlaw, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, understood this when he tweeted his support for Rashford at the weekend and sent a message to those Tory MPs still whanging on in defence of the government: “By all means have a debate later (much later) on responsibilities; but honestly, bluntly, not right now.” In other words, shut up and feed the damn kids.
I come from a long line of state-school teachers and have many friends in the profession. All of them, even in this society of plenty, with its stereotype of welfare-dependent families guzzling giant home-delivery pizzas while staring mindlessly at Netflix on their 75-inch smart TVs, tell stories of pupils coming to school without having had breakfast and with little hope of a decent evening meal.
The soles may be flapping from their shoes, while in winter they shiver for the lack of warm clothing. They are too hungry or distracted to concentrate in class. Their family life is turbulent and oppressive – alcohol, drugs, broken homes, mental and physical abuse are their daily bread. These children are very close to being beyond hope or rescue.
The teachers have where necessary paid for food and clothing from their own pockets, and organised collections of old or outgrown schoolwear, even vests, socks and pants, from among better-off pupils. The trick, I’m told, is to do this without bringing down the wrath of the parent or carer who, even if appallingly neglectful, feels slighted by such an intervention. It is heartbreaking.
The school meals row, coupled with years of austerity and the abiding need for food banks, has done the Conservative reputation for compassion no good at all. There are more than 2,000 food banks across the UK and the Trussell Trust, which runs about half of them, reports that food parcel distribution rose by 18% between April 2019 and March this year –before the full impact of the economic shutdown.
The long tail of Covid-19 and the withdrawal of Treasury support will see unemployment rise sharply in the new year, meaning many more families find themselves in difficulties. Homelessness, mental health problems and relationship breakdowns are all likely to increase.
The Conservative Party has always had a problem with poverty, and been seen as the parliamentary wing of the monied and the privileged. It has often – initially, at least – stood against reforms intended to expand opportunity and reduce inequality. Its approach to tackling poverty has carried the firm smack of the Victorian schoolmaster: Lectures about personal responsibility and self-improvement, about bootstrap-pulling and just deserts. It can be a harsh morality that is perhaps more easily appreciated from the comfort of a spacious semi-detached in Sevenoaks.
The charge of indifference may be unfair. Thatcherites will point to their heroine’s massive expansion of home ownership; others to the advent of Universal Credit which, in theory at least, was structured so people could take work without losing benefits and ending up worse off. Cameronistas will argue their tax changes were focused on reducing the burden on the poor, and austerity was necessary to ensure the consequences of the financial crash didn’t fall on future generations.
There is truth in all of that. But the rigidities of think-tank papers and the preference for certain data streams over others should take second place to the shaming reality of a child going to bed hungry tonight. It is hard to take the high ground over a few million quid to feed vulnerable kids when you’ve sprayed billions at the bankers who capsized the global economy in the first place.
The Conservatives got it wrong on school meals and look heartless, selfish and small. If they won’t listen to a mere footballer perhaps they’ll pay attention to Adam Smith, the revered economist whose ideas have underwritten so much Tory philosophy and policy over the decades, who warned that the “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition” was “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”