Why mum is better than Big Mother
It is better for children to be with their parents, even those deemed ‘bad’ by the state, than to languish in care.
‘The facts are deeply depressing’, said UK education secretary Michael Gove at the end of last week. ‘Too many local authorities are failing to meet acceptable standards for child safeguarding. Too many children are left for far too long in homes where they are exposed to appalling neglect and criminal mistreatment. We put the rights of biological parents ahead of vulnerable children – even when those parents are incapable of leading their own lives safely and with dignity never mind bringing up children. When we do intervene, it is often too late.’
In terms of the contemporary political climate, Gove was not saying anything particularly unusual. For several years now, the ability of mum and dad to bring up their kids without outside, state-backed intervention has regularly been called into question. Indeed, such is the low esteem in which our rulers now hold parents that earlier this year, prime minister David Cameron felt sufficiently emboldened to propose nationwide parenting classes.
Still, it is a dubious testament to Gove’s eloquence that he gave a striking expression to the state’s usurpation of the role traditionally played by adult family members. As he put it, ‘the rights of biological parents’ have for too long been treated as precious. It is time, Gove is saying, for these filial bonds, which have been central to society for centuries, to be demystified, disenchanted. After all, what is a mother or a father, or a daughter or a son, other than an arbitrary accident of nature? The words signify nothing more valuable than a set of random ‘biological’ outcomes. To privilege certain adult-child relationships on the basis of biology is to succumb to the allure of tradition, and to condemn many children to a lifetime of misery. ‘In all too many cases when we decide to leave children in need with their biological parents’, Gove concluded, ‘we are leaving them to endure a life of soiled nappies and scummy baths, chaos and hunger, hopelessness and despair’.
With the family blithely dismantled, and the roles of father and mother treated as little more than semiotic jetsam, Gove was able to propose his alternative to biology: the artifice of the state. ‘I firmly believe more children should be taken into care more quickly and that too many children are allowed to stay too long with parents whose behaviour is unacceptable. I want social workers to be more assertive with dysfunctional parents, courts to be less indulgent of poor parents, and the care system to expand to deal with the consequences.’
Gove’s is a frightening vision. As the meaning and value of being mum or dad is actively reduced by politicians to mere biological facts – in short, as tradition is wilfully disenchanted – so it becomes easier for the state, through its various agents, to assume the role of guardian. The result, complete with empowered or ‘more assertive’ social workers, and their correlative, impotent and less assertive parents, is a society with ever increasing numbers of children placed into Britain’s far from distinguished care system.
Quite why this scenario is considered progressive is not entirely clear. Living with a mum or a dad deemed ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ by a social worker would surely, in many cases, be far better for a child than surviving, parentless, even in a vastly improved care system. Besides, while Gove might not care to acknowledge it, the bond between parents and their children is not merely biological; it is possessed of considerable human and social value, too. Parents do not simply love their children; they help to socialise them, and act as a source of authority. To seek to erode this bond even further than it has been is deeply reckless.
But perhaps this should not be a surprise. After all, the momentum behind this drive is born not of respect for adult citizens, but of a profound suspicion of our ability to look after ourselves. In this regard, the occasion for Gove’s remarks was telling: the publication of Lord Carlile of Berriew’s report into the 2009 attack on an 11-year-old boy and a nine-year-old boy in Edlington by two brothers then aged 11 and 10.
The brutality of this attack was nearly as shocking as the age of the protagonists. The two victims were stabbed, stoned, burnt and forced to mimic a sexual act before the brothers eventually got bored and left the two boys for dead. In the words of the sentencing judge, Justice Keith, the case was ‘truly exceptional’, which was precisely why, like the case of 10-year-old Mary Bell strangling two infants to death in 1968, or the killing of two-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-olds in 1993, it received so much coverage.
But the Tory government-to-be refused to treat the 2009 attack as exceptional. It sought to present it as an insight into the state of society, a window on to the neglect-ridden and casually abusive landscape that dominates towns and cities up and down the country. As the future prime minister David Cameron said at the time: ‘On each occasion, are we just going to say this is an individual case? That there aren’t any links to what is going wrong in our wider society…’ Such was the Tories’ determination to see something general in the exceptional horrors of the Edlington case that Gove was driven to criticise the original special case review published earlier this year: ‘It documents everything that happened but with insufficient analysis of why and what could have been done differently.’ That is, the SCR refused to draw lessons for the whole of society from the Edlington case. Hence Gove was prompted to commission Lord Carlile to provide the report the government really wanted, one in which an endemic lack of state intervention was presented as the problem.
The result, as we have seen, is the casual, callous dismissal of parents’ ‘biological’ rights and the call for a more assertive cadre of social workers. The grisly irony of such a move is that the exceptional cases of neglect, such as that involving the Edlington brothers, will actually become harder to spot when ever more families are rendered suspect. Turning the state into Big Mother will do neither parents nor children any favours.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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