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How can we revive family life in Britain?

The family is the original safety net. But, for many of us, it’s just not there any more

By on Thursday, 31 January 2013

A family in Paraguay, like in Kenya, can't rely on a generous welfare state (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

A family in Paraguay, like in Kenya, can't rely on a generous welfare state (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

I was depressed by Monday night’s Newsnight – so depressed in fact that I could not bear to watch more than a few minutes of the opening item. The subject was the pensions crisis. How are we all going to pay for our old age, given that our pension funds are not going to be able to manage it? Once upon a time investments could be counted on to rise; the same was true of government bonds; as for our savings, these bring back a miserable return. So – who is going to pay?

Old age pensions have had but a brief heyday: they started with the Liberal government of 1906, which perhaps inaugurated the social democratic moment. That is now fading fast, even before our eyes. But if the state does not provide, who does?

This reminds me of a conversation I had once with a Maasai in the Ngong Hills.

“Is it true that in your country, when you go to the doctor, it is free?” he asked me.

Yes, it was true, I replied.

“Is it true that in your country when you go to school, you do not have to pay fees?” he asked.

Again, I assured him this was true. And I then explained about unemployment benefit and subsidised housing. I assured him that I was not having him on. He was amazed by the generosity of the British government. In Kenya, after all, one paid for everything, though primary education had recently been made free.

“British people must be very happy and very grateful,” was his conclusion.

In fact, I told him that the welfare state had not led to a huge upsurge in national happiness. In more or less every way Kenyans were more happy than Brits, as far as I could see. There is questionable research into happiness levels, but it is generally agreed that some quite suprising places are very happy. Kenya is one of them. So is Nigeria.

But where does this leave us? In the end, when the state fails, we have to go back to what we had before the state, namely the family. That is our original safety net, and the family precedes the state in every way. In Kenya it is the family that looks after you; true, very sadly, in some parts of northern Kenya, people starve to death, and there is much want all over Kenya: but all Kenyans know that in the last resort their relatives (quite distant relatives too) will always share their final crust of bread with them.

What makes the British situation worrying and depressing is that this family safety net is simply not there for so many of us. Many old people now live alone – something that was once more or less unheard of, or at least very unusual. Many family ties are strained to breaking point. People live atomic lives, not lives in family communities.

How did this happen? The answer would require considerable historical research, but that it has happened is surely beyond doubt. And that it is a bad thing is surely equally beyond doubt, though not all want to face this. True, some family structures were stifling, but the truth remains: the family is the natural unit that underpins human flourishing, and we need to rebuild family life. Without it, we are sunk; there has never been a good society without strong families. All wicked societies have done their best to undermine and destroy families.

So what can we do to promote the family, and specifically get children to look after their parents in old age? Any ideas?

  • Just Sayin’

    How can we revive family life in Britain?  Maybe make currently illegal drugs legal?  That should do it.

  • http://twitter.com/ALucieSmith Xander Lucie-Smith

    Come off it, mate!  Drugs destroy families – no one disputes that!

  • forumula_freddy

     Alcohol is also a drug that destroys families. Probably more so than many currently illegal drugs.

    Making currently illegal drugs legal does not necessarily mean more people using family-destroying drugs. It might mean a reduction in alcohol consumption, as people migrate to less harmful drugs, and better controls on the most harmful of the currently prohibited drugs such as heroin. Prohibition is not “control”. It is abdication of control.

  • Jonathan West

    I think you will find that the reforms that started with the Liberal government of 1906 were thought necessary at the time because in too many cases families were not providing and people died starving or destitute.

    In other words, perhaps your ideal past of families invariably supporting each other never was true even in the 19th century.

  • Timt-robertson

     In his brilliant Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, ROSARIUM VIRGINIS MARIAE, of October 2002, Bl John Paul II wrote of the family as the “primary cell of society” which is being threatened by “forces of disintegration” (n. 6). Catholic families at least should follow the Pope’s recommendation for the regular recitation of the Rosary both as a source of spiritual strength, and as a really effective means, provided it is prayed in the way the Pope urged, to ward off the evils which threaten our children and grandchildren in so many disturbing ways.

  • Emma

     We need to change gearts first. We need to bring Christ to this secular country. People need to do God’s will and be committed to Christ. Without Christ we end up being more selfish and less charitable towards others.

  • http://twitter.com/ALucieSmith Xander Lucie-Smith

    The 1906 govt had to act to counter the effects of industralisation and urbanisation. But there are countries that are industrialised and urbanised where the family works better than in Britain – Italy and Japan.

  • http://twitter.com/ALucieSmith Xander Lucie-Smith


  • Robin Leslie

    Your comparison of  different and diverse countries and cultures lacks any yardstick. Our experience
    of  economic and social justice since the New Deal in 1945, setting out as it did a Constitutional
    set of arrangements governing mutual obligations and responsibilities in legal process, economic
    activity and political life, had provided us, until 1980, with a relatively cohesive society. With the
    advent of neo-liberalism, or deregulated free market Capitalism, these arrangements have not simply 
    changed but been reversed. Globalisation and globalism is finished and it will not return. The United States is withdrawing from theatres of war, unlike Britain, and is starting to reform its violent and combative Wild West culture, viz,. gun laws, death penalty, healthcare, welfare. The British
    ‘government’ is trying to finish the job Thatcher started, dismantling the Welfare State, using
    employment and property as the cornerstone of its shaky meritocracy.
    Yes the family should be the cornerstone of our society, families that are open to those who are not members not families that are tribal ghettoes. In order to get from where we are now to cohesive family life we have to restore the Welfare State we had with universal benefits. Means-testing is a strategic device used by neo-liberal elites to end welfare altogether.
    It is a Lie and a damned Lie to say that we cannot afford a Welfare State for all in this country who
    NEED it. What we cannot afford is military spending on irrational wars, low Corporation tax, bonusses of one sort or another by business and finance, and of course tax avoidance and evasion.
    The Common Good is the ONLY criterion of a cohesive society and unless we begin to PRACTICE that the family will remain simply a romantic attachment.

  • scary goat

    Work hard to protect our Catholic views from being censored.  Promote (Catholic) Christian values.  Evangelize by word and example.  (I use Facebook to post “bite size” bits of Catholic info that I think people will relate to….eg. the CH article on porn….stick it in there amongst your other funny quotes and cute pictures….and a lot of non-Catholics will see it.  You might be surprised how many “likes” you get. Not everyone reads CH.  Most people have Facebook.)

    Family is of course the basic support unit, but we must remember friends, neighbours, community and wider society too.  As you rightly point out, many do not have family.  Like the priest ministers to the laity and the laity minister to the world, we need family as our support network so that we are strong to support others….not family should be a bunker mentality.

  • Jeannine

    How to promote the family?
    1) Happily married older couples, who are the best advertisements for marriage, should encourage those living together to get married by sharing their stories of the advantages of marriage during the good & bad times.
    2) Congratulate a woman for being pregnant. Tell her it’s wonderful to have children, money is always found for child expenses, & she must be a very special person. (You have no idea how many times I have been told by older women during my 4 pregnancies—”Why?”)
    3) Occasionally, volunteer to babysit your siblings’ or friends’ kids so they can have a night out.
    4) Pray, Pray, & Pray.

    How to get the children to care of their aged parents? If the parents were genuinely kind & good & truly love their children, I think responsible children will make arrangements so that the parents will be well taken care of.

  • mollysdad

    There is a way to re-establish family life, and it goes like this. Ban contraception. Abolish divorce. Tax cohabiting couples from the first pound (no single-person or couple allowance). Enforce marital obligations. If a man gets a girl into trouble, any public money spent on her should be recovered from him, and if he still owes money after he’s been totally cleaned out, then throw him into prison for fornication. Re-establish full employment. Make all employers pay family wages to everyone, and confiscate their businesses if they won’t. Of course, none of this is going to happen, so I’m afraid we’ve had it.

  • andHarry

    ‘But where does this leave us? In the end, when the state fails, we have
    to go back to what we had before the state, namely the family.’

    We are living in the ‘end time’, and can only expect for things to get progressively worse until Christ returns.

  • Mark

    When academia and television are either reduced in their omnipotent influence or when Christians convert academia and the media; until then no progress will be permanent because any progress made will be rolled back by anti-family propaganda in academia and the media. Any ideas on how to either reduce their influence or convert them?

  • kittydeer

    Italy is a great example, tiny families and a capacity to vote in dirty old men who are anything but family orientated. I do think some people tend to romanticise Africa and the East in general. There are some horrifically violent areas in Africa where the well being of children and women in particular leave a lot to be desired. The answer is not in places but in the message of Christ.

  • asa2222

    And how will we afford lavish benefits for everyone if people don’t have children, the percentage of the population working decreases, and the tax revenue cannot support them? Marxists love talking about these utopias with “universal benefits” and demonizing anyone who asks basic accounting questions (e.g. how will we actually pay for this?) as “tribalists.” Take a look at Greece if you want to see where that road leads.

  • asa2222

    Japan has one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world and is currently running a national deficit of about 200% of GDP to support them, and it’s only going to get worse as the current generation leaves the workplace and a much smaller cohort has to support them. Yes, family ties are probably stronger there and there is a stronger sense of national solidarity as well. But still the birthrate is too low and barring radical changes the Japanese will join the Sumerians, Babylonians, and ancient Greeks and Romans as extinct people. So will most of Europe.

  • asa2222

    We are living in the “end of Europe” time, but I’m not sure that holds true for the entire world. Things look pretty bright for China, and to a lesser extent the US and Israel, which are countries that are having enough children. European civilization, however, will be dead within 100 years.  The major monuments of Europe are already theme parks for tourists, whereas in China you see new cities being built.

  • asa2222

    Correct – secular Europe will contracept itself out of existence within a few generations. Cultures with strong prohibitions against abortion, contraception, and homosexuality will survive. 

  • asa2222

    One of the primary faults of Marxism is the refusal to live with the imperfections of reality. There will always be people who don’t live up to their responsibilities. There will always be crime, poverty, and oppression. One can fully acknowledge that reality while also arguing that the welfare state tends to make the situation worse.

    There are many reasons why, one is that it inadvertently rewards irresponsibility. Say there is a son who won’t provide for his elderly parents. So the state does it for him. This is not unlike a child who won’t do his homework, so his parent does it for him, isn’t it? You are rewarding irresponsibility by doing people’s duties for them.

  • thanks

    When the Tories told us to get on our bikes to find work in the 1980s,we left Merseyside, and now we all know about our grandparents and the Liverpool Care Pathway.

  • Ikeepitsecret

    There are two things which I think someone should look at. First: Christian families should be encouraged unofficially to adopt – have repeatedly to supper, involve in outings to the cinema or football club etc. – children, perhaps quite old children, up to and over twenty, who are neglected by their own parents. There are many ways to do this, but it is specially easy through one’s own children, who should be encouraged to bring friends home. Churches should also take spiritual responsibility for the schools (specially the secular schools) on their patch. Second: something should be done for the Modern Girl, who in many cases wants to be married, finds absolutely no men with the backbone to face that responsibility, and settles for concubinage. Some kind of club, or league, to help such girls to stand together and starve the men of sex until the men learn to behave: it would put some toothpaste back in the tube.