The least controversial bits of the document are those which involve financial remedies for some of the intractable problems we have today. How can anyone quarrel with steps being taken by New Labour to support families caught in poverty, or practical projects like the pounds 540m Sure Start programme to give small children from such families a fairer chance in life? Young lone mothers, many of whom are under-qualified and over- stretched, are bound to benefit from these proposals.
But these are the bits that not only deserve support, but are easy to support. What is far more problematic, and therefore most admirable, about this document, is that it steps into areas where issues are much less clear-cut, where passions will be aroused because they are about intimacy, privacy and taking personal responsibility. The ministers involved with this paper must be aware of this, which is why you will find in these proposals not the utter self-belief that we have come to expect and resent of politicians, but contradictions, uneasiness, diffidence even. Quite right too.
Talk about families, marriage and divorce, and people react as though you are invading their hearts. Which is exactly what is happening. What's more, not a single commentator on the subject can claim objectivity. We say what we think because of what has happened to us. I have views about stable relationships, children and commitment which are not only different from those before my own painful divorce 10 years ago, but are dominated by that experience.
Having been a dumped wife (and I am ashamed to confess to this, because it is more grown up-to pretend that the personal is not the political) I have nothing but murderous feelings towards mistresses, particularly blonde ones. Once altogether more breezy about the resilience of children, I have been forced by life and circumstances to reassess this as I watched my son suffer, and as I watch other children of divorced parents go through similar confusion and anger.
Jack Straw, when he was interviewed on the Today programme, similarly revealed that he was affected by the life he had as one of five children brought up by a lone mother, and by the fact that his first marriage ended in divorce. This is the difference between the gut-wrenching, arrogant Tory back-to-basics fiasco and this Supporting Families campaign.
I approve of this document not only because it is so full of human frailty, but also because it aspires to create something better, especially for our children. We need to think about how we treat people as parents, partners and members of society, because the evidence we have indicates that we are getting worse at doing our best in these basic roles. The exceptions are some of the minority ethnic communities, which retain a powerful sense that family and community life is not only a matter of ever-changing, flippant choices, but a lifetime obligation. And at least two of the three central principles of this document challenge us all to do just that. "Children must come first", it says, and "Children need stability".
How many times have you come across broken families where neither of these mattered a toss to one or both partners? I am enraged by friends who lie to themselves and to others that their children are going to be much happier when they see them in the arms of their new (more exciting, sexy, interesting) lovers. Or that, as long as they buy them the right gear and take them to exciting places every other weekend, there is double the happiness for the kids they chose to bring into the world (and remember, most of us exercised a real choice here, unlike people in many other parts of the world where contraception is non-existent) but who are much less important than their own fulfilment.
A fortnight ago I met a runaway father and his two very young daughters. The children completely blanked me out, although I have known them since birth. They would not speak to me, having decided that I belonged to a partitioned-off world that now did not include their father, and that they had to keep up the appearances of that separate world.
Yet their mother has done all the "right" things, never maligning him in front of them, ensuring continuous access, and all that. My own five- year-old did not sleep easy last weekend because her parents were having one of those dreadful times where row followed row until exhaustion and her tears made us act better. If it was impossibly hard for her to cope with, just 48 hours of her parents not showing love to one another, what do children of separated parents go through? And believe me, no child I know is fooled by the over-polite performances of "friendship" that such couples put on. It is not all right for us simply to ignore very real damage and sadness.
Between the terrible despair of truly bad relationships and the destructive hedonism of some partners lies a safer, saner place for children, and we need to start thinking about this. We might also ponder how misguided is the insatiable quest for the perfect family, which does not and cannot exist but which causes us to abandon any attempt to work at the imperfect ones.
The most important practical ideas in the consultation paper which may perhaps enable us to begin to do this are the proposed National Family and Parenting Institute, and the parent helpline. The latter will serve many who have nowhere to go when things are going badly wrong, and the former, hopefully, will provide further guidance for policy in this area.
Governments cannot provide perfect answers, not in this fraught and sensitive area. Perhaps in 10 years' time we will look back and feel that the policies did not work. But, as when trying to save failing relationships, it is still important not to abandon such things to the winds and to human nature.
Just by raising this complex issue may at least lead us in the direction of greater self-knowledge and thoughtfulness, and remind us that, like a domestic pet, a child is for life, not just for Christmas.Reuse content