It was October 7th 2002, ‘ The Ketchup Song’ by Las Ketchup was number one in the UK music charts, and a 6-year-old me had just opened up a Pokemon card pack to reveal a shiny Charizard. Culture had truly reached its peak.
It was also the day that none other than now former Prime Minister Theresa May coined the phrase ‘the nasty party’ to refer to how some (including herself apparently) overwhelmingly saw the Conservative Party. Speaking to a rather stunned audience in Bournemouth, she said:
‘[… ]our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies, You know what some people call us: The Nasty Party’.
No money for children
It’s now been 18 years since that speech, and we’re 10 years deep into a Conservative government; surely a sign that the majority of people no longer see it as the ‘nasty party’? After all, why would so many vote for them if they were thought to be nasty … or perhaps we’re just a nastier country now?
Whatever your opinion was a couple of days ago, it can’t be denied that we have all witnessed a horrid display of nastiness by this Conservative government after all but five of their MPs voted against extending the free school meals programme over the half-term.
According to most estimates it would only cost the government around £20 million to run the free school meals programme for a week over the half-term period. Considering that under Johnson the government spent £100 million on the ‘Get ready for Brexit’ ad campaign, and another £10 billion in uncontested bids to private companies since March for things such as PPE — including to several companies with close ties to the Conservatives who had only been set up weeks after the pandemic started, lacking previous experience in either the manufacturing or distribution of PPE. Basically, the kind of scenario that had you chosen this company in a multiple choice business studies GCSE question, you’d more than likely fail.
In one instance, a contract made by the government was said to have cost the UK taxpayer £150 million after it turned out the masks procured from that deal were faulty. This is enough money to fund the free school meals scheme in England for seven and a half weeks.
I say just in England because local governments in Wales, Scotland and (to a lesser degree) Northern Ireland, have all stepped up and will be providing the programme for its most vulnerable school children — showing us very clearly that this is an issue of political will rather than economic viability.
For me, the numbers speak for themselves. There’s clearly a lot of money going around, it’s just that the Conservative government doesn’t see this particular move as making good use of that money. They could, after all, run a fifth of a Brexit ad campaign instead!
Basking in self-righteousness
What really struck me was that instead of shying away from the spotlight that followed the aftermath of the vote on the schemes extension, a few Tories took this as an opportunity to almost revel in their decision. It was here that the party’s nasty tendencies came to the fore.
Enter Bassetlaw MP Mr Clarke-Smith, who has rather unfortunately gained my admiration for coining the phrase ‘nationalising children’, which has just pipped ‘broadband communism’ to the number one spot of the ‘things right wingers say about anything to the left of Mussolini’ chart.
Mr Clarke-Smith said that rather than the state stepping in to help vulnerable children in the biggest crisis that the world has seen for some time, we instead ‘need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility’. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite sure how or why a child should take responsibility for being fed, or how denying undernourished children access to food in any way increases responsibility. The clue arguably is in the name: they’re children.
Now it’s my guess that the MP for Bassetlaw was referring primarily to the duty that parents have to feed their children. Putting aside the fact that this is incredibly insulting to the parents who are struggling to make ends meet — often despite being in work (75 per cent of children in poverty come from working families) — it also brings a certain idiom to mind. Namely, that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Who’s responsible for food poverty?
Is it not part of the government’s job to reduce poverty? To create a prosperous and effective economy? (Effective in the sense that working full-time should enable a person to support themselves and their children) And, more centrally: what responsibility does the Conservative government hold in creating the conditions that have led to such high levels of food poverty? One Conservative minister has astutely responded with: ‘children have been going hungry for years’.
This statement is sadly and obviously true. What’s also true though, is that the number of children going hungry and relying on free school meals and food banks has been rapidly rising since this government came into power. We shouldn’t let previous governments off the hook, but right now and for the last 10 years it is the Conservative government that has been at the helm — they are the ones who can actually do something about the current situation.
What looks to be certain, is that we’re going to see more and more people fall into poverty due to forces completely out of their control. I’m also not confident that this government will be here to help them, given both their track record and because of the precedent set by this recent vote.
The government seems to think the onus is on us, not them, to solve this crisis. In classic Tory style, the ills of society must be the result of individual character flaws; a collapse in moral values in our society, and nothing to do with them. Mr Clarke-Smith embodied this when he asked, ‘where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children?’
It isn’t the economic forces out of individuals’ control, or the low wages and insecure work, or the higher rents; nor is it the fact that more and more people are being born into poor areas and poor families, with underfunded public services and worsening opportunities that has led to more children going hungry. No. It’s actually all down to ‘budgeting’ and a lack of responsibility on the parents’ behalf. Again, pretty rich coming from politicians who are themselves avoiding responsibility for their role in all this.
This is a classic diversion technique; challenge the character of poor people. And Mr Clarke-Smith certainly isn’t alone in this. Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, took this idea to the extreme on Twitter in a now-deleted tweet, where he stated that free school meal vouchers were being spent in ‘crack dens’ and ‘brothels’ as a way to delegitimise them.
I for one would love to see Mr Bradley try to buy drugs with school meal vouchers and see how he gets on.
There is of course something in all of us that doesn’t want to be cynical. We want to believe that when politicians make decisions we don’t agree with that they’re still doing this for our good — that they have the same aims as us, but believe in a different way of achieving them.
In this case however, and particularly in the case of the MPs mentioned earlier, I truly believe this is just pure cruelty and an honest reflection of how the leading party views poor people — as having ‘deserved’ their poverty.
We can all agree that the free school meal vouchers are not a sustainable solution. They are only meant to be an immediate solution to an immediate problem. The long-term solutions of that problem should have been set into motion years ago. The simple, undeniable, and absolutely devastating fact is that without food vouchers thousands and thousands of children will go hungry this half-term. Or if they don’t go hungry, they’ll go cold when their parents will be forced into a choice between feeding them or paying for the heating.
To know that what you’re currently advocating will mean hundreds of children go hungry, and to do nothing about that when the cost of helping would be relatively small, is gross neglect at best and pure evil at worst.
Feeding the children of this country isn’t about handouts or state generosity. It’s about investing in society. The child who is fed well will be the child who is far more likely to reach their full potential and break out of the cycle of poverty. This child, will also eventually give back to society. The government’s decision has let down a whole generation of kids, and it will have ramifications for decades to come. Marcus Rashford, the man behind the push to extend the scheme, put it best when he said:
‘a significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry, but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today’.
This is at the core of the Conservative Party’s nastiness. Not only will they deny hungry kids food, but they will also degrade and insult their parents for the unfortunate circumstances they find themselves in.