Unlike the royals, the poor mustn’t be allowed to breed like rabbits | Kevin McKenna

The Scottish Tories’ views on tax credits are nowhere near Dickensian enough

How quick we are to assemble a firing squad when some well-meaning Tory espouses a radical approach to social welfare and population control.

Last week, it was Michelle Ballantyne’s turn to take her place on the scaffold. In a Holyrood debate on poverty and inequality, the Scottish Tories’ welfare spokeswoman defended the two-child limit on tax credits. This is the one where claimants must prove a child was conceived through rape before qualifying for further benefits. Ballantyne said: “It is fair that people on benefit cannot have as many children as they like, while people who work and pay their way and don’t claim benefit have to make decisions about the number of children they can have.”

Her acute observation caused indolent leftie liberals like me predictably to have an emotional meltdown. Yet many of us ignored what the MSP for South Scotland said next: “Fairness is fairness to everybody, not to one part of the community.” With this, it all began to make sense. Ballantyne wasn’t really talking about sexually incontinent poor people – her remarks carry profound consequences for many affluent people throughout the UK. And where better to start than with our own chocolate box royals in the House of Windsor?

The fecundity of the UK royals continues to amaze. At the last count, the Actual Royals Support and Emolument fund, aka the sovereign grant, was supporting about 67 princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses. Very few would qualify under Ballantyne’s “work and pay their way” clause, unless you subscribe to the theory that a long honeymoon in Australia, Fiji and New Zealand paid for by someone else counts as work. If we were to apply Ballantyne’s reasoning to the Windsors, I’m sure we could claim back a couple of the dozens of palaces and stately homes we grant them and perhaps a few cheeky wee Gainsboroughs too. I’d apply a special royal benefits index here. This would take into account the number of royal babies, the amount of state support they receive and the extent of their parents’ indolence. Royal mistresses would of course be exempt.

I’d also extend Ballantyne’s “work and pay their way” clause to families who choose to deploy aggressive tax avoidance plans to increase their personal fortunes. Thus, those parents proved to have benefited from such schemes would be liable to lose some of their assets commensurate with every extra child conceived after the first two.

Ballantyne’s reasonable approach to ensuring that people curb their concupiscence if they are amid economically straitened circumstances follows other Tory social attitudes rooted in common sense.

When the Trussell Trust announced earlier this year that 2017 had seen a new record high in the number of food parcels being handed out at food banks, there came the usual hand-wringing and outrage from the 90-minute socialists among us. And so it was refreshing to hear a more optimistic and uplifting note struck by some enlightened Tories. This wasn’t a cause for recrimination and self-flagellation, they said; rather, it was a joyous affirmation of the generosity of spirit that exists in some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities. In this, they were channelling Donald Sutherland’s tank commander Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes. “Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?” they were effectively saying and it was good to hear.

I’d be tempted to push Ballantyne’s envelope a bit further. If socially irresponsible poor people insist on having a third child, let’s not merely tie off their benefits – let’s round up the children instead. Such a practice might at first glance seem draconian and heartless but it has a long and noble history. Why, the aristocratic classes have been doing this for centuries. Each year, their children are packed off unceremoniously to boarding school and are rarely seen by their parents again.

In this way, the remotest outposts of the British empire were maintained with a steady flow of fresh blood, mercifully free from any emotional ties with Mater and Pater. Thus, when it came to enslaving the children of foreign tribes to feed the machinery of empire, they were unmoved by sentiment or empathy. Similarly, the third-born children of poor Scots families could receive a serviceable education and some nutritional gruel in special “facilities” before being put to good use in gardens and roadsides – perhaps the odd war – at the state’s pleasure. Who knows, perhaps we could even use these children to trial experimental drugs. This would have the added benefit of keeping animal rights protesters happy.

For those harbouring some doubts about this approach, I’d recommend reading Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, published in 1857. This was nothing if not a celebration of the happiness and camaraderie that can exist in such places .

Sometimes, we can look to ancient history for lessons in how to maintain a fit populace and instil in poor people much-needed lessons in discipline and self-mortification. I’m thinking about the Spartans here. They would leave their infants on a freezing clifftop for a night as a means of sorting out the wheat from the chaff. This was a warrior race that needed to breed physically robust specimens for the battles that would always lie ahead.

The economic and social challenges faced by Britain in the long and chilly post-Brexit era will require our young to be made of stern stuff. A wee night out in the Campsie Fells underneath the stars would be good for the third children of poor families. Obviously it would reduce their numbers but those who survived would get an early lesson in not expecting too much from the state.

• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist


Kevin McKenna

The GuardianTramp

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