by Freddie Sayers
Tuesday, 11
February 2020
Seen Elsewhere
11:30

Is it time to give up on the ‘nuclear family’?

Brooks asks difficult questions about the history of the family

A new Tory MP whom I interviewed recently as part of our forthcoming profile of the new intake told me that whenever they hear the word ‘family’ in a political context, they think it’s code for reversing gay marriage and trying to re-impose old fashioned gender roles on an unwilling populace. If this is a Conservative MP’s reaction, I think we can say with confidence that ‘family’ has become a politically troubled word.

A letter to the prime minister asking for a ministry for families, signed by 44 Tory MPs and briefed to the Daily Telegraph over the weekend, seems to have disappeared already (no other paper picked it up, and the full letter has not even been released); 44 out of 365 Tories doesn’t exactly sound like a stampede.

Those of us who believe that people are turning away from the hyper-individualism of recent decades, and that we would be a healthier society with stronger families and communities, clearly need to do some serious thinking about what that means practically in 2020.

So David Brooks’ long and thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic about the shape of the family is well timed. I interviewed him last year about his book The Second Mountain and found him to be totally sincere and doing a valiant job trying to put communitarian ideas into language that his mainly liberal readers will find persuasive.

In this piece, he documents how our concept of the ‘nuclear family’ in America is actually a historical anomaly: for centuries, families were big and sprawling multigenerational clans and only at the end of the 19th century did people start leaving and forming their own little families in number, mainly thanks to industrialisation and the new economy. This reached a peak in the post-war years, where the cliché of the blissful 2.4 children nuclear family originates. Since then, families have broken down further (particularly in poorer parts of society).

Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. We want close families, but not the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible.
- David Brooks, The Atlantic

The solution Brooks hints at begins by pointing to a certain symmetry between the earliest ‘bands’ of humans who hunted together and looked after each other (despite not necessarily being related) and new contemporary models of kinship — whether the looser, larger family structures found in the African American community, or the extended ‘chosen families’ that were forged in the gay community in the 1980s.

Something tells me these are not the kinds of families the 44 Tory MPs had in mind when they signed that letter — indeed the whole notion of a ‘chosen’ family might strike them as a liberal absurdity, when the power of the family is precisely that they are not chosen. The validity of this version of the history of the family is also doubtful in England, where (according to Alan Macfarlane’s The Origins of English Individualism) the nuclear family began centuries earlier.

But these are nonetheless the kinds of questions the family lobby will have to grapple with if they want to get anywhere in the UK. Boris Johnson likes new, shiny things, and also has his troubled family record to contend with — the only way he is going to get behind a family policy is if it sounds contemporary rather than nostalgic for a past that may itself, per David Brooks, have been quite fleeting.

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