Almost every social problem that we face comes down to family stability." David Cameron, speaking to the Daily Mail in 2006, couldn't have been clearer. His "Broken Britain" was the product of broken families – an epidemic of divorce, estrangement, single-parenthood and marital lassitude which he linked to "poverty, social breakdown, educational failure, indebtedness, and drug and alcohol abuse".
And he's far from alone in expressing that opinion. From Gordon Brown's obsession with "hard-working families" to John Major's desire to get our domestic values "back to basics", politicians have spent much of the past generation diverting the blame for the trashed neighbourhoods and lost childhoods of the British underclass away from inequality, or low pay, or joblessness, and towards the life-ruining impact of "family breakdown". It's become an unshakeable public commonplace that the 21st-century British family has somehow lost its way, wandered off a traditional, stable path into a thoroughly modern moral swamp.
But there's just one problem – from a historical perspective, it's hogwash. If our families are breaking down, they must previously have been united. But if that golden domestic age ever generally existed, it was only for the tiniest sliver of time. The reality is that our families are actually reverting to historical type, acquiring, by thoroughly modern means, the disjointed, fragmented nature they possessed for centuries. If you take the long view of the British family, the last thing you'll find is domestic harmony.
The first historical flaw in the idea of "family breakdown" is, literally, fatal. If you think today's divorce rate of 45 per cent disrupts family life, try a life expectancy of less than 45 years – which Britain had in every century before the last one. Until the revolution in public health during the 20th century, early death dominated our households – two people marrying, having children and surviving long enough to raise them was a statistical rarity. Maternal mortality cut a particularly broad swath – around one birth in 20 claimed the mother as recently as 1900 – and the cultural staples of the wicked stepmother, the lecherous old groom, and the widower who falls in love with the nanny were all the product of the utter normality of remarriage after death. In fact, if you made it to 60 in 18th-century Europe, the chances were two in three that you'd not only outlived your spouse, but all of your children.
The next force loosening our rosily remembered family bonds requires one of the trickier acts of historical imagination – to understand how open, fluid and frankly chaotic our pre-industrial households used to be, with a constant flow of lodgers, customers (almost everyone who had a shop lived in it), staff, apprentices and passing relatives wandering in and out. We sent our sons out to live-in labour, our daughters out to domestic service, and took in other people's useful children. The nuclear unit was constantly compromised – with very little moral hand-wringing on the historical record.
But those are pan-European truths – and, in fact, the British (or rather English) family does seem to have been especially disrupted and divided. As the English Poor Law Report of 1834 claimed, "The duty of supporting parents and children... is so strongly enforced by our natural feelings that it is often well performed, even among savages, and almost always so in a nation deserving the name of civilized. We believe that England is the only European country in which it is neglected."
We tend to assume that in our past, we all lived in large, cohesive, multigenerational family households – but while that was once true in southern Europe (and among the more clannish Celts), the pre-industrial English lived in small domestic groups, that broke up quickly. The cultural ideal was escape from your family, not loyalty to it: as the family historian David G Troyansky writes, "The English historical record indicates a particularly strong ideal of independence."
The most persuasive explanation for this is that England developed a market for land earlier than elsewhere – you could buy a plot, rather than just hang around the family waiting to inherit, so getting away Dick Whittington-style, to seek your fortune, was the sensible life strategy. That meant more people, young and old, were left behind – England, through church, state and private savings, developed the loose beginnings of a "social safety net" far sooner than, say, Italy, where many fewer children and elders were cast adrift than in England's more mobile, restless family culture.
But then came the crux of this story: the Industrial Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of Britons were drawn into the new urban working class, and their families drew dramatically closer together. Life was impossibly hard and dangerous – male life expectancy of less than 30 was standard in the new cities – but shared perils, grinding poverty, cramped housing and a salary-based life (rather than the restless search for land), bound families into mutually supportive contracts. Parents raised kids, secured them work, helped them with the grandchildren and then got the help they needed in later life. Continental-style "kinship" had come to England – by the middle of the 19th century, the great industrial cities were composed of nearly 20 per cent triple-generational homes, more than treble the previous norm, and a small study of Preston in 1851 showed 85 per cent of married couples still living within 400 yards of their parents.
But it's what happened next that entirely overshadows our perceptions of family life in Britain. For the very briefest of "golden blips" (for one or two generations after the Second World War, at most), the poverty, danger and inhuman housing that forged these more cohesive working-class families were alleviated by social reform – but the bonds remained unbroken. Families stayed together (there were 15 marriages for every divorce in 1960 – in 2000, there were fewer than two) and they stayed close by: the most influential study of the British family ever carried out, the 1957 report Family and Kinship in East London, describes relatives enjoying "the constant mingling of daily living" across siblings, cousins and generations. Families may have been oppressive, intolerant and dull, but they were overwhelmingly loyal, supportive, and definitely not "broken".
The blip didn't last. Your opinion of why not defines, in large part, your attitude to modern Britain. Did the over-generous welfare state release the pressures that held us together? The family historian Michael Anderson wrote in 1995 that working-class families made "something of a full circle, from pre-industrial kinship weakened because the problems were so great and the resources so small, through a functional 'traditional' kinship system, to a system where kinship is again weakened but now, by contrast, because the problems are reduced." Or did the industrial vandalism, parlous town planning and rampant individualism of Thatcher's Britain drive a wrecking ball through family life?
There is another theory. Because running in parallel to this history of ordinary British families is the story of the rich – who are, of course, not like the rest of us. The rich – who had property to inherit, and the resources to live together – idealised family unity centuries before the masses did. Wealthy pre-industrial Britons led the way in romanticising the domestic world, the family hearth, the nuclear bond: 18th-century French aristocrats were reportedly bemused by how much time English noblemen spent in the company of their wives. Architectural innovations such as locked front doors, corridors and servants' quarters emphasised what the historian Edward Shorter called "a special sense of solidarity that separates the domestic unit from the surrounding community".
And this seems to be what has happened to the wider British family – we grew prosperous, and began to behave like the rich, idealising and focusing on the tiny community behind our front door, the smallest possible definition of "family", at the expense of all that "constant mingling" with wider relatives, friends and neighbours. Edward Shorter, again, summarised his The Making of the Modern Family thus: "The ship's own crew – Mom, Dad and the kids... severed the cables by gleefully reaching down and sawing through them, so that the solitary voyage could commence."
But here's the nasty twist. We appear to have trapped ourselves in a vicious circle – by choosing to dedicate our time and thought to the nuclear family over the wider community, we reduce the social support networks that, paradoxically, help to keep families together. As the anthropologist Edmund Leach famously prophesied in 1967, "The family looks inward upon itself; there is an intensification of emotional stress between husband and wife, and parents and children. The strain is greater than most of us can bear. Far from being the basis of a good society, the family is the source of all our discontents." The result is that we're rapidly divorcing our way to the disjointed family norm of the pre-industrial past, but without all the other human activity and solidarity that was in place the first time round.
The solution, perhaps, is that we should spend less time at home with our spouses and children, and more down the pub, or visiting friends, starting a book group, volunteering at a youth club or running the local Brownies. It could help to resurrect our communities and, quite possibly, save our marriages. But while that may be the lesson of history, the lesson of politics is equally unequivocal. If you want a platitudinous palliative to the nation's problems – it's the family, stupid.
Brian Schofield's 'Selling Your Father's Bones' is out now (£9.99, Harper)Reuse content