Christina Patterson: Keep it in the family (if you're lucky enough)

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When I heard the words of the honourable member for Old Bexley and Sidcup this week, in response to being found with his pudgy paws in the taxpayers' till, I nearly crashed the car. "I have," he said, "let my family down very badly indeed". Quite apart from the fact that these were the four human beings in Britain that he hadn't let down at all, it was quite a shocker. But perhaps it shouldn't have been. Prick a pig and it squeals. Prick a Tory and he'll draw up his drawbridge and jibber about his family.

Derek Conway would, no doubt, argue that what he did was just a variation on an old, old theme: the theme that, in the natural order of things – from God to "hard-working family" to those creatures unfortunate enough not to be related to you – you do what you can for your own. The best schools. Contacts to be milked for work experience (à la Cameron) and jobs. Just what's necessary to keep the show on the road – and, if possible, in the blood-line.

When all goes swimmingly, you're in the pink (literally, in the case of Conway's flamboyant eldest son). When it doesn't, presumably, you're buggered. When, for example, your precious first-born, and planned heir to the family fortune or business or media dynasty, arrives in a less than perfect package. When the child you longed for has autism, or brain damage, or any other kind of physical or mental disability which requires full-time care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, from the moment of birth to the day they die. Then, you're on your own.

That, at least, is the logical conclusion of any policy, or party, or world-view, which puts the nuclear family at the heart of a culture. Heads it's Harrow and "research" at the House of Commons. Tails it's bibs and nappies and oxygen tanks for life. That's the way the cookie crumbles. Not much family to speak of? Oh, bad luck! Terribly hard, but these things happen.

Conway's keep-it-in-the-family philosophy, however, is not a nightmare scenario that awaits if small-c conservative Cameron win the next election. It has been at the heart of this Government's policy towards the disabled since it came to power. Millions are spent, of course, on drugs and equipment and medical care for the disabled. We are not – or mostly not – a country where disabled children are forced to beg on the streets.

But for the "carers" – a euphemism, largely, for the mothers of disabled children – there is next to nothing. If you're very lucky, a bit of "respite care" once every couple of months. A few hours, perhaps, to go to a shop, or have a coffee with a friend, or get a haircut. Career? Forget it. Little job in Tesco's? Forget it. You're in prison for life.

This week, Sharon Coleman, the mother of a son who suffers serious respiratory problems, won the first stages of a case at the European Court of Justice, which could give Britain's six million carers new rights. Coleman wanted flexible working arrangements in her job as a legal secretary for Attridge Law, but was refused. She was, she claims, accused of being "lazy".

In the past three months, a close friend of mine with a disabled child had 46 appointments about her child's care. Some were medical, some were with social workers, and a high number were with bureaucrats arguing about who should pay for what. That, clearly, would be a great deal for any employer, or colleagues, to deal with.

So, actually, is the time we give women to breed the workers of the future. We do it because it's the law. We do it because it's what a civilised society demands.

All the President's women

Never mind the future leadership of the Western world, the race for the White House is proving a riveting anthropological phenomenon. While the heir to Kennedy and "first black president" throws mud at the new heir to Kennedy and first black presidential candidate, the queens of African America have been taking up their positions. Maya Angelou, who read a poem at the inauguration of bully-boy Bill, has thrown her weight, in a truly terrible poem, behind Hillary. Oprah's for Obama. And Toni Morrison, perhaps the most highly respected black writer in the word, is too. Morrison has hailed Obama's "creative imagination". A quality which the Clintons appear to have swapped for playground tricks.

* Forty-three years after she got married, my mother tried a strategy from a self-help book. "For the third time," she said, as calmly as she could during the interval of a prom at the Albert Hall. "Please could I have a look at the programme?"

My father, she had learnt, according to a book a friend had lent her, was in his cave. He must be treated with quiet respect. The book, of course, was Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, the guide which became an international franchise.

This radical new approach to relationships – culled, it seemed, from pre-war movies – had women around the world learning that their husbands weren't on leashes, but elastic bands. And now, there's an update, one which aims to draw on the latest research on the brain. In Why Mars and Venus Collide, we learn revolutionary new strategies for making relationships. Women, apparently, should accept, appreciate, admire, approve and encourage their men. Plus ça change.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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