‘Pro-family’ politicians: a threat to the family

Social conservatives, take note: it is oxymoronic to try to strengthen the family by bombarding parents with patronising advice.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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One of the great myths of British politics is that those who champion a liberal approach to abortion and divorce are ‘anti-family’, while those who wish to deny people the ability to have abortions and leave failed relationships are ‘pro-family’.

To begin with, it is a myth in historical terms. Arguments that women should be legally able to prevent unwanted children, or that husbands or wives should be legally able to leave unhappy marriages, rested on legal reformers’ belief that a good society would be better based on stronger, more committed personal relationships than on relationships driven by compulsion. And it is also a myth in the twenty-first century, where politicians across the political spectrum routinely use ‘pro-family’ arguments as a justification for interfering in the family for political ends – with the result that they actually weaken the family that they claim to want to support.

A recent example of this myth-making is given by Tim Montgomerie in The Times in February. Montgomerie’s central argument was that in times of economic crisis, strong family and community bonds are more important than ever. Therefore, it would be utterly wrong for politicians to focus on sorting out the economy. Because ‘the only things separating many households from great financial distress are resources provided by friends, families and neighbours’, the time has come for ‘both Tory and Labour politicians’ to decide they want to ‘rebuild the family’ with a view to getting on with the ‘next, greater task of finding public policies that increase social cohesion’, said Montgomerie.

Wherever you stand on the question of welfare benefits or publicly funded services, the first part of Montgomerie’s argument is clearly right. At a time when jobs are scarce and wages are low, and when welfare is being reformed, people are going to depend on the support of their friends, families and communities. Indeed, nobody has ever argued that such support is unimportant, even in times of economic boom; and when times are tough, it is simply a truism to say that people will need to turn to each other.

But that is precisely what makes the second part of Montgomerie’s argument – that the government needs to turn its attention towards the family – misguided.

Back in 2008, when the recession first began to bite, I wrote an article about why the solidarity of family and friends was the best argument against government interference in family and community life. Informal bonds have become weakened, leading to a wider experience of isolation, and, no doubt, a greater reliance on the state. But this has been provoked by over a decade of concerted attempts by policymakers to ‘support’ families by meddling in their affairs.

This has taken a number of forms. Parents of infants are instructed not to listen to their own parents when it comes to childrearing matters, but rather to attend official parenting classes; parents of children of primary-school age are warned not to let them out to play and told that they must have a police check before engaging with anyone else’s kids; parents of children of all ages are told that their key childrearing priorities are ones they do alone – helping with homework, ferrying their kids to supposedly enriching activities – rather than simply being a parent, hanging out with other adults while their kids hang out with other children.

In this regard, the kind of explicit parenting policy developed by the New Labour government has codified a host of cultural developments, making the informal bonds between and within families increasingly fraught. If social conservatives really were ‘pro-family’, they could usefully pull back on some of these policies, allowing families some peace and space to sort out their problems and relationships. But the trajectory is relentlessly in the direction of more family meddling.

Montgomerie writes that, ‘At a time of economic slowdown, some Conservatives are tempted to become even more econocentric. They couldn’t be more wrong. Now would be precisely the wrong time to retreat from questions of social structure.’ Here, he is indicating that politicians should carry on focusing less on the ‘big’ (social and economic) problems and more on how people live their personal lives and sustain their intimate relationships.

The kind of policy consequence that flows from this perspective is typified by the influential think-tank the Centre for Social Justice, which proposes official therapeutic regulation in the form of ‘pre-marriage preparation’ and relationship counselling offered at key ‘life stages’. Far from encouraging people to depend on each other, such strategies institutionalise the notion that individuals should develop a relationship with the state, in the form of official guidance on how to live with each other.

Montgomerie takes pains to distance himself from the social conservatism associated with America’s Republican Party, such as ‘reactionary policies on abortion or women’s roles’. But his self-consciously ‘controversial’ suggestion that divorce should be made harder for couples with children indicates that such rhetorical flourishes are not borne out of any liberal sense that individuals should be free to make their own life decisions and work through the consequences themselves. Rather, it reveals the desperation behind this political turn towards the regulation of intimate relationships, borne out of the view that the only solution to cultural, political and even economic problems lies in the bedrooms of the electorate.

Similarly, Montgomerie welcomes gay marriage as an example of the ‘modernisation’ of social conservatism. But this merely reveals the desire to make gay couples’ relationships, like those of married couples, open to regulation. There is nothing liberating, or liberal, about this.

Indeed, an interesting Daily Telegraph piece by Tim Wigmore, titled ‘Pro-gay marriage, anti-abortion: the new face of social conservatism in America’, draws attention to the way that the political right in the US is increasingly championing gay marriage, while states are tightening anti-abortion restrictions with an extraordinary zeal. Whatever is driving the gay marriage cause in the US, it clearly has little to do with the idea that people are best placed to choose for themselves how best to manage their personal and sexual affairs.

The reality is that in times of economic crisis, as in all other times, politicians who interfere with individuals’ personal relationships – with their partners, children or communities – will end up shooting an own goal. The more policymakers assume a role in people’s intimate relationships, the more they foster a sense that people should look outside of the family for sustenance and support. Having the freedom to make choices and live with the consequences does not weaken the family. On the other hand, meddling in individuals’ intimate lives as an alternative to addressing the economic crisis is a recipe for disaster.

Jennie Bristow is editor of bpas Reproductive Review and and an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies. She is also author of Standing Up To Supernanny and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

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Topics Politics


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