It is a sad feature of our age that so many of our policymakers are imbued with a moral cowardice that prevents them from speaking openly and candidly about issues central to the well-being of the nation. Usually it’s because such issues are deemed too politically sensitive, and to tackle them would generate a torrent of opprobrium from other parts of the establishment. Reputations and careers are easily destroyed if the wrong people are offended in our increasingly intolerant society.
The consequence is that opinions that are mainstream out there in the provinces of the United Kingdom are seen as taboo by the political class, thereby exacerbating the already-profound divergence between the priorities of the governors and the governed.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the subject of the family. No institution is more pivotal to our lives, nor has such an acute influence over whether we succeed or prosper as individuals. Yet, beyond the usual platitudes about the need to ‘support hardworking families’, the merits of the institution itself, and in particular how it can operate most effectively, barely features in political discourse these days.
This is all the more inexcusable given the scale of family breakdown, with all its deeply deleterious effects, over the last 40 or so years.
We know from research carried out earlier this decade by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) that the UK has one of the highest percentages of lone parents in Europe. Over a million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers, and almost half of 15-year-olds do not live with both parents.
It is, of course, the young who pay the highest price for this disintegration of family life, with children from fractured families being twice as likely to develop behavioural problems and more liable to suffer from depression, turn to drugs or alcohol, or perform worse at school. There is also an increased chance of their living in income poverty in the future.
But it isn’t just children who suffer from family collapse. Divorce and separation have led to increasing estrangement between parents and their offspring, and growing loneliness among older people, such that around a quarter of a million people aged over 75 spend Christmas Day alone.
Yet so far as our lily-livered politicians talk about this social catastrophe at all, it is to tell us that families come in all shape and sizes and that to even raise concerns is to stigmatise those families that do not conform to the traditional image. It is a pathetic, negligent, pusillanimous response to an epidemic that is causing widespread misery and impeding the life chances of millions of young people.
What is so difficult or revolutionary about making the simple argument that, as the evidence conclusively demonstrates, children are generally better-served by being brought up by both biological parents, and that it should be the job of government to use every available lever available to encourage this outcome?
This is not to decry lone parents, many of whom undoubtedly do a grand job. It is merely to recognise that we should encourage as best we can the model that is proven to work most effectively.
It is, though, not all about spinelessness. Certainly for many on the modern Left, the undermining of the family was always a political objective. These are, after all, the cultural revolutionaries, the ‘68ers, the liberal dogmatists who have always regarded the traditional family unit as oppressive and patriarchal. To dismantle it was, in their eyes, to spread ‘liberation’. Know this, and you’ll understand why they have historically supported every policy measure that has had the effect of weakening the family.
But for those of us on the more traditional Left, the concept of family, far from being antithetical to our socialism, is the very essence of it. It is within the family unit that we first learn about obligation, sacrifice, loyalty, compassion and solidarity. It is one place where the common good will almost always transcend self-interest, where you are in every sense your brother’s keeper. What better example is there of socialism in action?
That’s why we socialists should defend the family unit against all-comers. And that means resisting not just the cultural war against it, but the economic one too. Austerity, low wages and poverty have all weakened family ties, as has the explosion in the number of families in which both parents go out to work, often not through choice but financial necessity.
Working-class families bear the brunt of all this, and thus are more prone to break up than wealthier middle-class families. A greater degree of financial security inevitably allows for more investment in the well-being of offspring and better insulates couples against pressures that often drive poorer parents apart. And all of this becomes self-perpetuating: children raised in strong families are themselves more likely to enjoy family stability later in life.
That’s why fighting the effects of austerity and demanding better wages and a healthier work-life balance for workers is crucial. But without a parallel commitment to the concept of the traditional family itself, and the courage to articulate it, any success will be limited, and we are destined to condemn a new generation of young victims to the destructive effects of family breakdown.
Remarkably, in spite of the sustained political attacks against it by our liberal establishment, the populace still cleaves to the concept of the traditional family unit. Polling for CSJ shows that 72% of adults believe that family breakdown is a serious problem in Britain today, while 69% think it important for children to grow up living with both parents and 64% agree that fatherlessness is a serious problem.
Confucius had it right 2,500 years ago when he said, “When there is harmony in the home, there is order in the nation.”
On this fundamental issue, as on so much else, today’s political class is woefully out of step with those whom it governs. And the chasm between the two groups grows ever wider.