In the first of a series of articles following on from the 2013 conference, Kathy Gyngell, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, gives her views on saving the family.
Saving the family is becoming an ever more desperate exercise – as desperate as saving Private Ryan.
As the social casualty count goes up the marriage rate plummets and belief in the institution collapses, it seems.
Today nearly half of all births (47.5%) take place outside marriage and three million children are growing up in single parent households – mainly mother led. The middle aged are hit by this institutional rout too. Record numbers of 45 to 64 year olds (two and a half million) live on their own today with no spouse, partner or children to comfort them.
But the worst fall out is in the council estate ‘men deserts.’ Here children’s, particularly boys’, prospects are disastrous.
Nearly every ‘early’ and ‘supporting problem families’ intervention designed for them is, in effect, a marriage disadvantage reduction policy. Fatherlessness and illegitimacy compound poverty and underachievement in ways that the State cannot and will never be able to compensate for.
So it was important that last Saturday’s Conservative Renewal Conference addressed this grave problem and asked how do we hold onto marriage and the family – in a time when it appears that both culture and behaviour is against it?
For marriage is no longer the foundation stone of family life, as the Telegraph had reported earlier in the week. The belief that couples should ideally get married before starting a family has effectively collapsed, halving in less than 25 years.
With such a backdrop it was important to unpick the reasons for the collapse.
Was it a reflection of cultural preferences – for sexual liberation or libertarianism? Or were successive Governments to blame – governments that shortsightedly gave in to the influence of radical and irrational feminism and then were too nervous to retreat – however grave the consequences?
I made the latter case.
I argued that the most fundamental threat to the married family was and still is the influence of radical and irrational feminism. It has laid the family low and we need to understand how if we are to defend the family for the future; if we are to respond to clear signs of a return to traditional values amongst younger women – an important trend that the British Social Attitudes Survey, itself trapped in feminist orthodoxies, avoided focusing on.
We are so used to them (indeed cowed by them) that it is easy to forget how radically feminism has changed the balance between the family and the state – in the state’s favour.
But we should not forget Harriet Harman’s triumphalist marking of Gordon Brown’s first Budget as, “the end of the assumption that families consist of a male breadwinner and a female helpmate in the home.”
It was a step on the way to her Equalities Bill (enacted by the Coalition) maternal employment policies and childcare policies that few today dare question or challenge for fear of being accused of sexism.
But how ‘progressive’ have these policies been? They are to the detriment of children and men. They also entrap women into low-paid, unrewarding work and state dependency. They have not sought, let alone created, equality of respect for the maternal role.
Only in the feminised socialist utopias of the Scandinavian countries are the combination of family breakdown, maternal employment and state takeover of childrearing more complete.
Today Lord Lawson admits that his failure to persuade Mrs. Thatcher to include transferable allowances in their independent taxation reform back in 1988 has had far reaching consequences. It did indeed set in train the abolition of the married couples allowance, and George Osborne’s final death knell for family responsibility for children – capping child benefit. But these financial blows alone do not account for the scale of family breakdown and dependency.
In the decade before independent taxation reform and before withdrawal of fiscal support for marriage, the number of single mothers doubled from 330,000 to 770,000.
A feminist revolution in policy had already begun. Lone mothers including never married mothers were given state benefits to free them from dependency on men.
By 1990 the American Social Scientist Charles Murray noted the emergence of British underclass resulting from this rising rate of illegitimacy.
Its human face was socially marginal, unemployed men with little incentive to obey social rules – least of all the marriage rule – for whom there was no compelling reason to seek work.
Politicians, like Frank Field, prepared to think the unthinkable in 1997, who saw its true cost, were outgunned by the Polly Toynbee and Harriet Harman school of feminism.
The feminist solution to single mother welfare dependency was work and childcare, forget mothercare. Its course was cleared by Gordon Brown’s new and abused multi billion pound tax credit (benefits) system. For housed, non-working, single mothers continued to be the norm.
But such huge one directional subsidies made the married choice harder. Lone parent benefit gave rise to the ‘the couple penalty’ – living apart meant more benefits. Today the Marriage Foundation has found there are some 240,000 couples are claiming to be apart in order to claim lone parent tax credits of £7,100.00 (rising to £9,985. 00 where there are two children). No wonder working class people have concluded marriage is not a realistic option for them.
People are economically rational. They know full well that there are neither tax nor ‘welfare’ advantages to a marriage certificate. Living together as partners means income support payments fall. This is a disincentive even to cohabiting.
Only richer folk can afford marriage. Only amongst them is it rising. They know it will help cement their wealth and their children’s success.
This does not mean the poor are against the idea of marriage. They love the idea of it, but not, as one study has suggested, to the men in their neighbourhood.
As Geoff Dench explains from his research on single mothers’ attitudes, “… most of the differences… reflect doubts over whether marriage is currently a realistic option, more than a fundamental rejection of marriage as an ideal”[i].
Yet despite a crescendo of anxiety about the collapse of boys’ morale and performance – the unmarriagibility of marginalized, non-contributing men – the feminist bias to solving ‘the men problem’ persists.
It still pushes maternal employment though since 2008 women in work have increased by more than a quarter of a million; men in work has fallen by 70,000.
Interest persists in reconstructing men, dissolving gender differences, providing paternity leave, and bullying them into becoming domestic helpers.
No wonder many women give up and decide they’ll go it alone with a bit of state help.
This is why renewed focus on eliminating tax and welfare disincentives to marriage through the introduction of a transferable tax allowance, bravely championed by Tim Loughton MP, is essential but not enough.
Gender policy ends up putting the main burden back onto the state; adding to the weight of taxation, undermines family autonomy and providing inadequate or unwanted substitutes.
Families must be freed to decide their own division of labour and gender roles. They also need to be responsible.
That means making the father’s name on the child’s birth certificate compulsory and docking welfare benefits of absent fathers.
It also means positive discrimination for male employment to re-socialise men.
This is not impossible. Signs are that a backlash against radical feminism has begun. It just has not yet arrived at Westminster. The Harman and Toynbee baby boomer generation are increasingly out of step with everyone else. For in many crucial respects younger adults are becoming more, not less, old fashioned in their values. Cheating on a partner is greeted with more disapproval than it was 30 years ago.
Younger women are becoming more, not less, traditional in their attitude to gender roles. Today that have ideas that are closer to their grandmothers than to their mothers. This is what Geoff’s Dench’s analysis of the recently published British Social Attitudes data tells us – published on the Centre for Policy Studies website recently.
Far from the incomplete gender revolution that the BSA spun last week – what we are witnessing is more like the start of a counter-revolution. The once steady gradient, in age terms, for most gender attitudes (with younger women expressing more ‘liberated’ opinions) has stopped. It is not the young but the middle-aged baby boomers who hold the most feminist views.
There are signs too that the retreat from traditional sexual divisions of labour, in which men work while women look after the home, has come to an end and may even be going into reverse.
Younger women (those aged 18-39) are more likely to think a pre-school child will suffer if its mother works than their mothers think – significantly up since 1994. Since then the number who think a job is all right but what women most want is a home and children has doubled. Nearly half of all young women now think that being a housewife is as fulfilling as working for pay.
The sad fact is that all three political parties are out of touch with these new realities; and out of kilter with all but the views of the once sexually liberated, privileged but often cross, metropolitan, Guardianista baby boomers. The Conservative Party need to wake up fast to the fact that these once opinion leaders are no longer modern and who, like the ludicrous Lib Dems, would kill off the institution that opens the door to a fairer distribution of power and opportunity in society.