If you were thirsting for more signs that we are edging towards dystopia, the Sun on Sunday was there to prove it this weekend. In an exclusive report – tastefully sub-titled “Bonk for Britain” – a cabinet minister told the paper that to shore up the British economy, the government ought to take inspiration from Viktor Orbán, the right-wing nationalist prime minister of Hungary.
“Look at the labour shortages we are suffering from,” the anonymous “Top Tory” told the Sun. “We need to have more children. The rate keeps falling. Look at Hungary – they cut taxes for mothers who have more children.”
The paper drooled that the “wacky policy already exists in Hungary”, as if this were a piece of salacious gossip. The measure in question was announced by Orbán in 2019 to boost the country’s birth rate and cut immigration. His “Family Protection Action Plan” included a lifelong income tax waiver for women who have four or more children.
The Sun article raises many questions. Who, for example, is this mysterious cabinet member? What about some context on the Hungarian government’s anti-immigrant and anti-democratic ways? But at the very least it gives us a solid example of how women’s bodies can be pawns in political projects.
Hungary is not the first country to try to encourage women to get pregnant in the service of the nation. Women’s bodies are often treated like public property, as the site of repression or a way to salve wounded national identity. Right now, Iran is on fire with protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in police custody after she was arrested for “violating laws” related to wearing the hijab. In the US this year Supreme Court justices overturned the decision in Roe vs Wade that had guaranteed the right to abortion across the country since 1973. In both cases it is women’s bodies that have been in the line of fire.
And in the seemingly flippant suggestion by this unknown member of Liz Truss’s cabinet, women’s bodies are on the table as we search for solutions to our economic woes. There is something chilling about seeing the precious human ability to create life tossed around in the service of fixing, say, labour shortages. This is particularly acute, of course, for women, especially those who have had children and know exactly what is involved, blood and guts and all.
Wouldn’t it be better if, instead of ruminating about whether women couldn’t just rustle up some more babies for the economy, cabinet members came up with more novel solutions? Women’s contribution to national productivity might be better harnessed by proper childcare provision, the development of a care economy, or the redistribution of unpaid labour.
And ultimately, that a cabinet member is looking to Orbán, who erected a fence to keep immigrants out, for inspiration should concern us all. Let’s hope they start looking elsewhere for ideas.
[See also: How John Cleese became a hero of the right]