I WAS with a group of pensioners recently who were fondly recalling an old friend. Raising a glass in his memory, they toasted a man who always looked forward to receiving his winter fuel allowance so he could replenish his wine cellar in time for Christmas.

After hearing the Conservative Party manifesto last week, I began to suspect a Tory advisor had been hiding behind the curtains, texting HQ at proof of state funds being squandered on the undeserving elderly. Soon, if predictions of Theresa May’s victory in the General Election are to be believed – and one fears they must – those south of the Border will be individually assessed for this seasonal benefit. So far, there has been no such discussion in the north.

Cometh the election, cometh the buzzwords. Overnight “strong and stable” has been replaced by “means testing”. You don’t need to have read Oliver Twist, or studied history to catch its Victorian overtones.

When the Tories announced that free school lunches for infants are to be replaced with free breakfasts; that help with fuel bills is no longer automatic once you are of pensionable age; and the price the aged will pay for care in their dotage will be assessed according to the value of their property as well as their savings, one could not help thinking of the harsh Old Poor Law. For 350 years, this often heartless legislation made a patrician distinction between the “deserving poor” and the feckless, and imposed obligatory charitable payments on those with the money to pay.

The distinction now being made, between those on low incomes and those who are comfortable, is not, obviously, directly comparable. Yet there are parallels. As in the days of the dreaded poor house, the state is taking upon itself the judgement of who to help and who to ignore, of telling the populace what pigeonhole they belong to, and how they are expected to behave.

This is not to say that governments are not entitled to calibrate the needs of people who receive their support. Common sense insists there cannot be a free for all. But when Theresa May promises to remove small but important entitlements, it is indicative of more than mere belt-tightening. There is something unappealingly rectitudinous and punitive about the concept of means testing, hinting as it does that the well-off or affluent are spongers, and for too long have been claiming what is not rightfully theirs.

Think, for a moment, of the winter fuel allowance. When the administrative cost of working out who is eligible is set against the outlay (and bear in mind not everyone entitled claims it), it is clear that the real purpose of this initiative is not simply an exercise in cost-cutting but in education.

It tells us the state will no longer offer something for nothing. In an attempt to appease younger generations who resent baby boomers’ jobs, pensions and properties, the Prime Minister is indicating that everything the elderly receive should be according to their circumstances. Those with deep pockets will barely notice the moth hole this makes in their bank balance. For those who struggle to get by, it will no doubt be reassuring. It will also be a reminder of where they stand in the fiscal pecking order. Inevitably, those who just miss out will feel it most acutely, as if the east wind had found a crack under their door.

This is not the time to discuss Mrs May’s new social care proposals, except to note that, as with the winter fuel allowance, on this issue Tory manifesto pledges have no sway in Scotland. As yet. But we should not be fooled. Like ash dieback, once an idea has been introduced it could easily spread, regardless of borders.

A while back there was briefly talk of free bus passes being thus assessed. Showing how quickly a new notion can enter the bloodstream, influential pundits like Melvyn Bragg are already suggesting the BBC should consider means testing free TV licences for the over-75s. As soon as the Tories have created their list of those too posh for perks, it can and will be shared with opportunistic second parties.

There is no indication yet that Ruth Davidson will dare mention means testing here. It is not inconceivable, however, that if the Scottish Conservatives do well enough in June and subsequent elections, this most expedient idea could take root and begin to colour opinion. If that were to happen, you might ask why worry if the reasonably well-off have to pay for more?

Well, for a start, the way people’s income is assessed will be complex and open to miscalculation, deliberately or not. It also seems an unnecessary and expensive use of civil service labour. More important, however, is the message it sends.

Means testing turns back the clock to an age of haves and have nots, of leaders and lemmings. It makes no space for a middle path, or far-sighted vision. Instead, it turns citizens into numbers, where every social policy is about profit. Whether hard-up parents or frail senior citizens, we are to be made aware that our political leaders see us as counters in a game of Monopoly, not as individuals with individual needs.

For the sake of an estimated £1.5 billion a year – the Government equivalent of chicken feed – winter fuel savings will remind pensioners that they are a costly burden, whose expectations must be curbed. The £650 million saved by axing school lunches is harsher still, implying the physical and educational well-being of rising generations can be calculated in pennies and pounds. How Mr Scrooge would approve.

As the population learns that henceforth all but the poorest must look out for themselves, the fall-out could be severe across the political divide. Voter disaffection, apathy, and disengagement will almost certainly follow. And where will be the incentive to be thrifty, or safeguard an inheritance to pass on with pride? Some will lose the confidence to start a family, while those stretching a pension further will no longer be able to help family, or charity, and feel they are contributing to the common good.

It is the outlook and tone as much as the economics of means testing that are distasteful. Such tactics may initially improve the bottom line. But, as the Tories will soon learn, it could and should cost them dear.