Tuesday Book: Family matters, but forget about marriage

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The Independent Culture
The Sex-Change Society

by Melanie Phillips

(Social Market Foundation, pounds 12.99)

EVERY REVOLUTION produces its counter-revolution. Melanie Phillips is the counter-revolutionary in chief, determined to undo the revolution wrought by the post-1968 feminist generation whose politics have transformed society. First in New Society magazine, then in newspapers, Melanie Phillips could be found tirelessly agitating against the sisters she grew up with.

She likes to pretend she is alone against the mob, but she is part of a swelling crowd of writers - most, but not all, male - who hate the arrival of women's politics and the dissolution of the old hierarchical and patriarchal verities. Their slogan is "Man at Work, Woman at Home, and the English Nation" - a variation on "Travail, Famille, Patrie", Marshal Petain's motto for the Vichy French.

Her latest book, 360 densely argued pages about marriage and the family, is subtitled "Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male". Her thesis is that the state has replaced fatherhood and that the male is without a role as breadwinner or head of the family.

Other than, perhaps, poor old Peter Hitchens, I cannot think of anyone who produces such negative, hissing reactions amongst the bien-pensant crowd than Melanie Phillips. Yet the fury of the attacks reflects an uncomfortable truth. An awful lot of what she writes makes sense.

The weakening of the family over the past quarter-century is one of the least-understood phenomena in contemporary policy-making. It is the last institution in which the injunction "From each according to his/her means, to each according to his/ her needs" still holds good. The family is the locus in which the strong are teased, the rich forced to give up a bit of cash and the weak helped, with a solidarity across generations that no state support system can replace.

Yet while policy-makers have sought to devise programmes that support women and children, no one seems to have worried about how to support the family as an institution, rather than as an aggregate of individuals. Successive Tory chancellors removed the fiscal recognition for the family in our tax system. Married mothers who stay at home to bring up children are not recognised for their contribution to society. To provide the choice of going to work for mothers is essential. To make going to work obligatory as the only way to obtain benefits weakens rather than strengthens families.

Phillips describes this well, but fails to draw the conclusions from her analysis. She conflates marriage with the family, an ahistorical argument that was dealt with once and for all in Ferdinand Mount's classic essay "The Subversive Family". He demonstrated that for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, the two-parent family existed without marriage. Marriage is important, but the family is the institution that needs to be put back into politics.

So it is worth looking at societies where families have not suffered the catastrophic decline that we have seen in Britain. The Netherlands, for example, has one-eighth of the UK's number of teenage pregnancies. Italy and France have much higher family survival rates. But Phillips is as anti-Europe as she is pro-family, so not one Continental study is cited in her richly researched book, which draws all its facts and arguments from American and British sources.

Her book is published by the Social Market Foundation, one of the SW1 think-tanks that grew up to support the Thatcher revolution. In addition to a belief that everything good comes from America, SW1 wisdom holds that employers can do no wrong. Yet, in her most interesting chapter, Phillips says that a male breadwinner works on average 55 hours a week to support his family. How on earth can families survive, if fathers have to work seven eight-hour days?

Could it be that the most damage to family life is being inflicted not by Phillips's feminist former comrades, but by employers who resist any check on their power to impose low wages and long hours? Might it be worth dropping her fashionable anti-Europeanism to ask why families survive better on the Continent than in the US or in Britain? And if Melanie Phillips did either, would the SMF continue to publish her writings?

The reviewer is Labour MP for Rotherham