I like to think I can imagine the thought process behind Marcus Rashford’s decision to promote free school meals for children. He thought about his younger self – listening to his mother cry herself to sleep because she struggled to make ends meet. He thought about his platform – as a Premier League and England footballer, with 3 million Twitter followers.
He probably thought about the backlash. History suggests sports stars put their heads above the parapet on social issues at their peril. But even if politicians are callous enough to oppose meals for children whose families are struggling, who would risk doing so publicly? Didn’t the Conservative party say time and time again that the nasty party days of “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher” were behind it?
Enter Kevin Hollinrake. When questioned why it was Rashford, and not the government, advocating for children to have enough to eat, the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton in North Yorkshire tweeted “it’s a parents job to feed their children”.
At first I thought that kind of hard-heartedness must reflect a deep-seated belief in a small state – the classic kind of fiscal conservatism with which I profoundly disagree but can understand as a coherent political ideology. But no. Hollinrake actually supports government handouts. He was excited about the prospect of his own £40m estate agents’ business benefiting from the government’s coronavirus scheme to provide low-interest loans.
Hollinrake even enthused about state handouts to cushion his rural constituents from last year’s woodburner crackdown. It’s very important that people should be able “to enjoy a cosy evening by the fire”.
I can only surmise that Conservatives such as Hollinrake think people with log fires or small businesses are deserving, and people who struggle to feed their children are not. It’s one of the unpleasant truths about the idea of supposed personal responsibility in Britain’s welfare discourse that has always been cruel, and – this is especially relevant to Rashford – has always been racialised.
All debates about poverty alleviation inevitably suffer from a myth of personal responsibility. The parallels between the 1834 Poor Law – premised on the belief that individual moral failure was the root of destitution – and the contemporary emphasis on single-parent families being to blame for poverty are striking.
If Hollinrake’s response to Rashford seems unreasonable, consider the hate delivered by far-right Twitter troll David Vance, someone with thousands of followers despite the fact that he regularly harasses black people on social media. Vance blamed Rashford’s own poverty in childhood on the ever-available trope of absent black fathers and broken homes. His typically disgusting post – since deleted – attempted to discredit Rashford as a product of “black men abandoning their pregnant girlfriends”.
I am personally of the view that people’s personal reproductive history is their business, but unlike those on the right, I apply this idea to people struggling to feed their children as much as I do to privileged white men in positions of power.
It’s no surprise that racist narratives quickly surfaced in response to Rashford’s project of poverty alleviation. The question of how much food the state should provide schoolchildren has roots in racist policies. The 1906 Provision of Meals Act – the first to legislate for school feeding – seems groundbreaking, but its origins are pretty dubious. During the disastrous Boer war, the perceived poor performance of British troops, and difficulty recruiting them, was put down to their apparent physical “deterioration”. The idea that young white men – at the apex of an imperial system in which they were supposed to be culturally and physically superior – were in reality malnourished, weak and not meeting their potential is what spurred policymakers to act. Allowing local authorities to provide free school meals was regarded as part of the solution.
It would be nice to think we have come a long way since then. Now a black man such as Rashford can attain national hero status and use it to create tangible policy interventions – in his case a child food poverty taskforce. Its first recommendations are that free school meals should extend to every child whose household is on universal credit, during term times and the school holidays. It’s the obvious expansion of the project that began in 1906 but never went far enough.
But little has changed when it comes to the tendency to blame people who suffer disproportionately from social problems – whether hunger or coronavirus – for the existence of those problems. Weeks after another Tory MP, Craig Whittaker, said that ethnic minority communities, particularly those from Muslim backgrounds, were to blame for spreading Covid-19, there are reports of a shocking increase in racism directed towards those communities.
These Tory MPs, like their predecessors who opposed the very concept of feeding children at school more than 100 years ago, speak the language of “personal responsibility”. But what that means, what it has always meant, is that whole communities are to blame. The language is dishonest, but the ideas are truly obsolete.
• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist