Margaret Thatcher first registered on the political radar of my generation when, as Secretary of State for Education in 1971, she ended the provision of free milk for children over the age of seven, thus earning herself the snappy title of “Thatcher the milk snatcher”.
As new-ish undergraduates, we were a year or two past the age of receiving free milk, but for children of the post-war boom who had also benefited from free orange juice and cod-liver oil and who were living the blessing of the free university education unavailable to their parents, it seemed a regressive and mean spirited action. Forty years later, as support for the poorest is savaged in the name of budgetary responsibility, free milk seems something of a sideshow.
But it was doubtless an echo from that enduring anti-Thatcher epithet which moved the former PR man who is now our Prime Minister to row sharply back from the proposal of his health minister, Anne Milton, to scrap free milk for children under five. The urgency with which David Cameron acted – intervening even as David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, was defending the idea on BBC TV's Andrew Marr show - indicates some incoherence in the making and presentation of government policy. Not a good morning for the coalition's PR image.
That presentational disjunction raises questions of integrity as well as of consistency in the new government's programme of cutting public expenditure. David Cameron talks tough on reducing the deficit and is ready to exploit popular, if ill-defined hostility to 'bureaucracy', quangos , 'red tape' and 'benefit scroungers' in his mission to demolish as much state provision as he thinks the electorate will bear.
But the Prime Minister is markedly less eager to abolish those state-funded benefits which are disbursed without relation to need and are therefore valued by the middle class. Winter fuel payments and free bus passes for older people may be very welcome, but no one is arguing that they are necessary to all who receive them. They are, however, along with the provision of free milk to young children, very popular To cut 'something for all' welfare would be electorally disastrous and is the point at which Cameron's zeal for rolling back the state suddenly diminishes. Middle class recipients are more likely to vote Conservative and are certainly more likely to express articulate opposition to the removal of their benefits.
The vulnerable are not offered such consideration. George Osborne's budget protected universal child benefit while cutting housing support for the poorest – the National Housing Federation has warned that 65, 000 disabled people, including many with severe mental health problems, are in danger of losing their homes.
The pace and scale of the government cuts is deeply troubling and is heavily weighted against those whose need is the greatest. If the coalition's promise to put “fairness at the heart” of its legislation so that “those most in need are protected” is to have any meaning, it must target cuts away from the most vulnerable, not from the most assertive and articulate.
In a time of financial plenty, it would undoubtedly be better to give free milk to all young children than not to do so at all, but in the current climate, the question must be asked as to whether the £59 million involved might not be better directed. It is a difficult question and the answer is not to be found in last-minute reprieves for popular benefits.
The government has stripped powers from the Food Standards Agency, cut £1 million from the School Food Trust, poured scorn on Jamie Oliver's work to improve the nutritional standards of school dinners and cut a programme which would have given free school dinners to 500,000 children from families below the poverty line. But it dare not touch free milk.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger