Michelle Ballantyne is a terrible person. She is cruel and without feeling.
Don’t take my word for it. Everyone is saying so — or all the people who hold all the correct opinions, anyway.
The Scottish Conservative welfare spokeswoman led for her party in a Holyrood debate last Wednesday on ‘ending austerity, poverty and inequality’.
Challenged on whether the two-child benefit cap was ‘fair’, Ballantyne snapped: ‘It is fair that people on benefits cannot have as many children as they like while people who work and pay their way and do not claim benefits have to make decisions about the number of children they can have.’
It was hardly an elegant statement. As a summary of the flaws of the welfare system, it lacks nuance; as defences of Universal Credit go, it is far from stirring.
Ballantyne’s opponents pounced. Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell accused her of ‘suggest[ing] that, if someone is poor, they are not allowed any more than two children — that view is utterly reprehensible.’
Nationalist MSP Tom Arthur called it ‘one of the most disgraceful speeches that I have ever heard in my two and a half years in this parliament — six minutes of pompous Victorian moralising that would have been better suited to the pages of a Dickens novel’.
Nicola Sturgeon picked up the pitchfork the following day at First Minister’s Questions, describing Ballantyne’s contribution as ‘appalling and ignorant’ as well as ‘Dickensian’.
And that was that. Ballantyne was pronounced a typical heartless Tory and everyone moved on.
How many of her denouncers stopped to learn anything about Ballantyne before lighting their torches? Did they know about the woman who worked as an intensive care nurse, started her own business, went back to university, ran a drug and alcohol support charity and served as a councillor — all while raising six children?
Did they stop to think she might have some life experience that informed her policy conclusions? You should at least get to know about a person’s character before you assassinate it.
Ballantyne did not say that poor families should not have children. She reflected the hard, painful reality that families confront every day: having children is not merely a question of love but a matter of financial means. It’s not a pleasant fact, however you state it, but a fact it continues to be.
In an ideal world, income would be no barrier at all. Bringing new life into the world is a joy to be treasured and, albeit more pointy-headed, we have an ageing population and below-replacement level of natality. We need more people to have more babies or our public services will implode.
We don’t live in an ideal world and we lack the resources to support a spurt in the birth rate. This requires us to make do with what we have and the two-child cap is an attempt to do that. It is not necessarily the policy choice I would have made but it is one that meets with the approval of millions of voters.
They have had to make sacrifices in their own families and resent being taxed to relieve others of the need to do the same. To some that might sound mean-spirited but to the mum who couldn’t afford to have the girl she always wanted after two boys, the sentiment will ring achingly true.
Ballantyne knows well the demands of a large family, even on households with two incomes. She may have spoken inexpertly but she spoke from the reliable expertise of all working mums: kitchen table economics. In an era when we are enjoined fuzzily to ‘tell your truth’, Ballantyne told hers and suddenly everyone was a moral absolutist again.
The SNP is shouting at Ballantyne because they cannot very well shout at themselves for child poverty rising from one in five to almost one in four on their watch. Labour is shouting at Ballantyne because they would like to forget that their 2017 manifesto committed to carrying out £7 billion of planned Tory welfare cuts. Everyone is shouting at Ballantyne because everyone has failed dismally on welfare and shouting means they don’t have to admit it.
Reflecting on the parliament’s final resting place at the foot of the Royal Mile, Edwin Morgan rejoiced that it was ‘there, down there, in the midst of things/ not set upon a hill with your nose in the air’.
The Scottish Parliament is the parliament for all of Scotland, not just the squalling feedback loop that runs from the Garden Lobby bar to the BBC studios at the Tun. Spend long enough at Holyrood, with its compromising intimacy between ministers and civil society, SpAds and journalists, and you start to believe all of Scotland thinks the way people do here.
And when a flare of democracy pierces the cozy fug of received opinion, it is resented, derided and finally ignored. Holyrood is for making history and history is made by Holyrood, not the brickies and hairdressers and taxi drivers, who lack the compassion and refinement of their betters.
Seven in ten Scots do not want their children changing gender in school without their knowledge. Nicola Sturgeon’s government ignores them and backs official guidance which says otherwise. Support for the criminalisation of smacking languishes below one-third when the voters are asked but when the politicians come to decide it will pass handily.
We say no and we are the people but they say yes and they are the state.
This is not a war cry for reaction. Progress tempered by caution is preferable to slash-and-burn radicalism and a better guardian of social norms than listless nostalgia. Or as GK Chesterton put it more mordantly: ‘The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes; the business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.’
To shape a country that works for the greatest number of us, we have to listen to all shades of opinion, including and especially views that make us uncomfortable. What affronts us may strike the next person as common sense and disappoint the person after that in its timidity. We did not vote for a parliament so it could be stuffed with 129 nodding heads.
Michelle Ballantyne is not a terrible person, neither cruel nor without feeling. She spoke poorly; she may well have been wrong. But she wants to fix problems and the first step to doing so is to admit they exist.
From what demonic depths springs the strain of wickedness that would open fire on a family gathered for a baby-naming ceremony? That is what worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were doing on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when a gunman defiled the house of God.
The courts will determine the motive of the killer but whatever dark impulses drove him, this much we know: There was a pogrom in America on Saturday. Eleven Jews were slain as they prayed, one of them Rose Malinger, aged 97.
To those of us who are not Jewish, what happened in Pittsburgh seems unfathomable. To Jews, it is all too fathomable. According to the FBI, Jews suffer more hate crimes than any other religious minority in the United States. Home Office statistics show that British Jews reported almost 700 hate crimes last year.
Anti-Semitism is at its most open, aggressive and dangerous since 1945. We all have a duty to bear witness to this evil — and to fight it.
My colleague Emma Cowing longs for Scottish Hallowe’en traditions. Boo to that. Guising is cultural appropriation, dooking for apples against health ‘n’ safety, Nicola would slap a sugar tax on treacle scones, and try carving a neep and you’ll end up in A&E looking like a recent guest of the Bates Motel.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.