Only by challenging the social and the economic liberalism that pervades the Conservatives will the Prime Minister be able to claim victory for families
If you have to tell people you’re cool then – as a rule – you’re not. Take it from someone who really, really isn’t. Cool people don’t say it, they just are it. All of which is a roundabout way of saying how profoundly sad and depressing I found the Prime Minister’s speech on family policy yesterday.
Don’t get me wrong. I agreed with most of it. More intervention to help couples stay together? Sensible. A bigger emphasis on ensuring caring for children is a respected, and respectable, pursuit? Great. Stress-testing all policy for its potential impact on family life? Fantastic. But, and here’s the rub, shouldn’t we have always been able to take all that for granted? Particularly under a Conservative-led Government? Isn’t there a problem if, less than a year from the next election and after four years in power, the Prime Minister decides that he’s all of a sudden going to be putting families at the heart of his Government? If you have to say it Dave, we’re going to wonder whether you’re really doing it. The cool don’t announce their coolness, and pro-family politicians don’t have to give speeches about their pro-family agenda.
I mean, if ministers haven’t been considering the impact of their policies on families these last four years, what have they been doing? We’ve had major, landmark reforms to welfare, education, health and work-place rights under the coalition. Initiating now, after all that, a ‘family test’ to asses what effect policies have is an exercise in post-bolt stable door closing if ever there was one.
It is an indictment of our political class that putting the family at the centre of things should be such a novelty. As Maurice Glasman said, in my interview with him in last week’s Herald, our leaders often see only individuals and the state. The messy, glorious eco-system in between – families, churches, community – is disdained and disparaged by a cadre of wonks and politicos hell bent on rugged individualism and social mobility at all costs. The question asked by many at the top of society is not, ‘are people nurtured by the social fabric around them?’ but ‘why aren’t more people barristers with a four bed in Islington?’
As Lord Glasman told me, “Social mobility has been understood and measured as being how far away you can move from your mum”. And so we have – in our determination to let folk ‘be the authors of their own life story’ – actively undermined and eroded the natural intuitions and needs of ordinary people. Is it any wonder that family breakdown is now so rife when the British State has for so long looked on kinship with suspicion?
But what’s done is done. And in spite of the timing, the Prime Minister seems keen to remedy the damage done. How will he fare?
All depends on how prepared he is to challenge both the social and the economic liberalism that pervades his party. Only by taking on, and slaughtering, some sacred cows will Cameron be able to claim victory for families.
First the easy bit, the social liberals. It is perfectly possible to be kind, tolerant and loving whilst also taking a strong and evidence-based view of what is best. And we know that what is best – for children, for their parents – is a stable and long-term partnership raising kids together. No, not if one of them is abusive. No, I’m not denying that many single parents are outstanding and devoted. But in general and on the whole we know this to be a truth. So when David Cameron talks about “supporting families” he needs to be clear that he means – first and foremost – helping as many people into stable, long-term partnerships as possible. Most of us consider ourselves part of a ‘family’ of one sort or another – but Cameron should be clear that he has a particular understanding of the ideal (one that he shares with most people) and that his intention is to help folk achieve that. Otherwise he is not promising to support ‘the family’ he is promising to support ‘everyone’. Nice. But meaningless.
Secondly, he must challenge some of the neoliberal assumptions that underpin most of his party’s economic thinking. Too much power in the hands of employers means longer working hours, less security in work, lower pay and less opportunity to support and raise a family without dependency. That’s bad for family life and it leaves couples poor, exhausted and married to the State. These things are, of course, a balance. But if David Cameron wants to send a message about his intent to place family above brutal economic orthodoxy then he could do so with one simple, totemic move. He could, and should, rule out further liberalisation of Sunday trading laws if the Conservative Party win the next election. The steady incursion of work into the home has been toxic for family life. The time has come to stop the rot.
It’s good that David Cameron cares about families – but it’s disconcerting and sad that he has to announce it. You’d hope we could take it as read. If our he really wants to support the family then he can, but it will mean tackling some liberal taboos. He should ask Lord Glasman for some tips.
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