Leading article: Dangerous echoes of Thatcherism

Share
Related Topics

It might be called the curious incident of the milk in the summertime. A Scottish newspaper, the Glasgow Sunday Herald, revealed – on the basis of a leaked letter from the Health minister – that the Government was planning to end free milk for children in nurseries, the argument being that in these straitened times the provision was poor value for money and outdated. But no sooner had David Willetts, the Universities Minister, justified keeping all options open, than officials in Downing Street denied it. The Prime Minister, they made known, did not like the idea of five-year-olds having their free milk scrapped.

As well he might not. "Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher" is well established in the national memory as one of the more damaging slogans of those years. Her decision, as Education Secretary, to end free milk for most primary school children came to encapsulate a spirit of meanness and suspicion of state largesse. It stood right up there with the half-quotation, "There is no such thing as society", as representing the particular brand of Thatcherism David Cameron has spent the past five years trying, with mixed success, to live down.

Short-lived though it was, this episode is telling in many ways. First and foremost, of course, it illustrates the sensitivity of No 10, and clearly of Mr Cameron personally, to the slightest hint of any equivalence between his own Government and that of Margaret Thatcher. These may be austere times, and government spending may need to be slashed, but the Prime Minister has tried to communicate that he is not demanding cuts for their own, ideological, sake. He saw at once that depriving under-fives of free milk would be cited time and again as proof that his Government was essentially Thatcherite by another name.

And so it proved. The Labour leadership candidate, David Miliband, lost no time in drawing the parallels. There were, said Mr Miliband, "dark echoes of Thatcher snatching milk from a previous generation" and it was a "cruel cut which will hurt children the most". It would cause "real anger amongst parents, nurseries and milk providers". There were suggestions, too, that the Conservatives' Liberal Democrat partners would be unhappy.

Yet this is not all the episode reveals. The proposal to abolish free nursery milk was contained in a letter from the (Conservative) Health minister, Anne Milton, to her Scottish and other counterparts. But the first Mr Cameron says he knew about it was when it made the news. It is possible that the leak was a deliberate piece of kite-flying and he was being disingenuous in saying he knew nothing of it. But it is also possible that Ms Milton and her civil servants were simply naïve in failing to appreciate the resonance of tampering with children's free milk. Politically, such a proposal is lethal and any British politician, of any party, should know that. At very least, the minister needed to tell the Prime Minister that it was being broached. To this extent the new Government has been exposed, not for the first time, as inexperienced, if not actually dysfunctional.

But if abolishing free nursery milk is politically unacceptable, this does not mean that it would not make economic sense. The idea, as presented yesterday, was that part of the money saved – £60m and rising – could be used to boost the value of the milk and fresh food tokens already provided for the less well-off. A universal benefit would thus be replaced by a targeted one. In itself, as was clear from some of the internet and phone-in response yesterday, this is an argument that can be made, and it is not without some public appeal.

What happened yesterday was a cackhanded minister – rightly – being overruled by a politically savvy Prime Minister. But it will also be interpreted in some quarters as timidity. The Government would do well to ensure that the curious incident of the nursery milk is not repeated.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Cover Sup...

EBD Teacher in Shropshire

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: EBD Teacher - ShropshireWe are current...

Teaching Assistant (complex needs)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We are currently looking for teachi...

Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits