All it took was a letter. Two sheets of A4 and Marcus Rashford was catapulted from Manchester United striker to national treasure, leaving the government red faced and 1.3 million children knowing they won’t go hungry this summer.
It was a gleaming example of how to be a celebrity in 2020: a campaign on Twitter, complete with a ready-made hashtag and a raw, honest letter from the heart. Of course the government had to make the U-turn – Rashford’s letter made it clear it was the only thing that made sense.
His campaign to secure food vouchers for children from low-income families through the summer holidays was a triumph. But the fact it took a 22-year-old footballer to explain to ministers, who are supposed to enter politics because they want to make the world a better place, that it’s wrong for children to go to bed hungry isn’t something we should forget.
Child poverty should be a no-brainer. It’s the one thing everyone should agree on. But in the country with the fifth largest economy in the world, children have been punished through cruel austerity policies that have left their parents struggling and their cupboards bare.
Stories of working families queuing up at food banks and headteachers stepping in to wash children’s school uniforms have long been dominating the headlines, but until Rashford’s campaign these heartbreaking anecdotes of life below the breadline have fallen on deaf ears.
Last week, in an interview with Kay Burley on Sky News, health secretary Matt Hancock got Rashford’s name wrong, calling him “Daniel” live on air. Later, the explanation Hancock gave was weird, weak and really quite typical. He claimed his daughter is a Harry Potter fan, and she was listening to one of the audiobooks at 5.30am when Hancock was preparing to do his media round, therefore “maybe I had Harry Potter on the mind”.
But this wasn’t a bleary-eyed mistake made by a busy parent who hadn’t yet had their morning cup of coffee – it was a lack of interest. Hancock simply couldn’t be bothered making sure he knew Rashford’s name. The footballer’s cause is of no consequence to him.
The past 10 years have shown the Tory government hasn’t stopped to think about the impact of their austerity on the estimated four million children growing up in poverty.
Even when the UN’s rapporteur on poverty and human rights Philip Alston accused the government of the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population” after visiting the UK in November 2018, ministers didn’t give it much thought. Straight-up denial was the response, with ministers saying Alston’s report was “barely believable”.
Child poverty simply isn’t on the agenda for Hancock and his cronies – of course he got Rashford’s name wrong.
I don’t believe Tory ministers pored over Marcus Rashford’s words, picturing a little boy in a Manchester United kit and a single mother on an estate in Wythenshawe working every hour to make ends meet in a system that was and is not designed to help families like hers succeed. After all, ministers have heard many tales of destitution during their time in power and failed to be moved.
But hopefully the rest of the country took a moment to let the image sink in, and maybe Rashford’s legacy will stretch far beyond this summer.