Christina Patterson: Not all families are created equal. But we can't afford to change that

The Saturday Column
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Politicians, as we know from their Tourette's-like assertions on the subject, are extremely keen on families.

There was a time when they weren't. Ted Heath loved orchestral music and was very fond of a yacht, but on matters relating to toddlers he remained agnostic. Margaret Thatcher somehow managed to gestate two human babies in her cast-iron womb without (apart from the time when one of them got lost in a desert, and then, unfortunately, turned up again) it apparently affecting her view that children were a messy, milk-guzzling nuisance. John Major seemed reasonably fond of his children, and swallowed the embarrassment when one of them chose to marry a glamour model, but he didn't seem to think that his prime ministerial status rested on passionate declarations of paternal love.

In 1997, everything changed. In 1997, somebody made a rule that said you couldn't be a prime minister without having a photogenic young family, and that you couldn't talk about "children", you had to talk about "kids", and you couldn't say that you liked your children, of course, and that on the rare occasions you were home to read them a bedtime story, or maybe even give them a bath, they seemed quite funny and sweet, but that obviously your wife did most of that stuff because you were busy working 18-hour days in order to further your political career.

Instead, you had to say things like "my most important job is as a husband and father", which might well explain why you messed up your other one as prime minister, and "my family means everything to me", which, on the basis of the empirical evidence, is clearly a statement as truthful as "we will not raise tuition fees", and you had to do things like call your new baby after the place where you had your holiday (which, thank God, wasn't Bognor) and, at a time when you were cutting hundreds of thousands of jobs, employ a full-time photographer to take photos of you dandling your baby on your knee.

But although the protocol for politicians' families was now pretty straightforward – clever, pretty wife, whose witty non-criticisms of you could be wheeled out as examples of your self-deprecating humour, clever, pretty children whose witty bathtime aperçus could be wheeled out as examples of your humanity – the protocol for other people's families remained a bit tricky. You, obviously, are blissfully in love with your clever, pretty wife, and are so, so lucky that, in spite of all your little foibles, she seems to want to stick with you, and, of course, the au pair's such a gem. But the trouble is that an awful lot of people don't seem to live like you.

An awful lot of people seem to spend an awful lot of their time spewing out babies without it ever crossing their (alarmingly empty) little heads that there's no partner to help look after them, no wage to feed them, and no possibility of paying rent on a home. You thought at first that it was because they couldn't get the hang of contraception, though they didn't, it's true, seem to have trouble with their terribly complicated cable TV packages or with their mobile phones. But now, after pouring really quite a lot of money into teaching these people about the link between drunken sexual intercourse and the emergence of a tiny screaming human being, you've come to the reluctant conclusion that they know what they're doing and they do it anyway.

Under New Labour, the official line was that families come in all shapes and sizes (though the families of the underclass did seem, in every sense of the word, to be ginormous) and that a family with one mother and 10 children, all by different absentee fathers, and no working parent, was just as good as a family with, say, a lawyer mother and a politician father, living in a nice house in Islington. If the parents seemed strangely untroubled by issues like who was going to pay for their offspring's continuing existence, well, that wasn't the children's fault. You couldn't blame the children for having (let's be honest) feckless parents, and you didn't want them to grow up in abject poverty, so you came up with allowances and tax credits, and rules about bedrooms and housing, to make sure they didn't. All funded by the state, of course.

Under the Coalition, the official line is a bit different. If Iain Duncan Smith's speech on Wednesday is anything to go by, the official line is (to echo the words of a police marksman who apparently thinks it's hilarious to weave song titles through the evidence he's supplied about a man he killed) that enough is enough. That paying poor people, in effect, to breed more poor people, and paying them more the more they breed, is not just extremely expensive. It's also making a big problem much, much bigger.

Children from broken homes are, according to IDS, nine times more likely to commit a crime than those brought up in stable families. They cost the taxpayer between £20bn and £40bn a year, and the additional costs, in addiction, crime, lost productivity and tax revenues could, he said, be up to £100bn a year. "It is important," he said, "that we recognise the role of marriage in building a strong society."

It is, of course, unlikely that the compulsory purchase of meringue-like dresses and multi-tiered cakes is going to wipe out the problems of communities in which a qualification or a job is an unimaginable novelty. It's unlikely that tiny tax breaks will either, particularly when the people concerned don't pay any tax. And it's clearly ridiculous to say that a stable partnership that calls itself a marriage is intrinsically superior to one which doesn't. But it's also true that trying so hard not to penalise the poor children of poor parents hasn't done too many favours to anyone, least of all the poor children, many of whom – and some when they're still children – are busy producing poor children themselves.

As always, it all comes down to education, but it also comes down to sticks and carrots. This government is right to try to reduce the incentives for irresponsible parenting. And it's right to say that two parents are better than one. A child, like a dog, is not just for Christmas; it would be nice if a father wasn't either.

Why diplomacy is even weirder than Jenga

Games have always seemed to me like a terrible waste of time that could be much better spent reading a book. I literally couldn't believe it when I went to a dinner party, and the (adult) host got up after pudding and fetched a box of some kind of wooden Lego called Jenga and expected his (also adult) guests to spend the rest of the evening building a leaning tower and then watching it fall down.

But whoever invented diplomacy obviously adores games, and the weirder the rules, the better. There's the rule, for example, that says that a country in the Middle East that's occupying the land of another country, and treats the people of that country worse than factory-farmed chickens, which is saying something, and continues building hideous suburbs it calls "settlements" even when it's said it won't, and generally behaves like a hyperactive, and extremely nasty, toddler, is treated like royalty by the major Western powers, who also fall over themselves to call it a "friend".

And then there's the rule that says that a British prime minister visiting the country that will, in a few years' time, be the world's biggest economy and strongest superpower, who is there with a begging bowl, and in hope of some tiny drops of trade trickle-down, has to start his visit with a little lecture on human rights. It's hard to imagine exactly what goes through the heads of people who are in charge of 1.4 billion other people on these occasions, but one can probably assume that "You're so right! I'll sort it out" isn't top of the list.

Have the Booth sisters lost their marbles?

It's beginning to look as though some of the Booth genes are really quite peculiar. Poor Cherie, who always, at least in photographs, looked more than a little deranged, has been offering a pretty solid body of evidence – flogging tat on eBay, playing video games like a bored adolescent – to suggest that such marbles as she once possessed (and also, famously, juggled and dropped) have now been scattered to the winds.

Her sister Lauren's recent conversion to Islam has done little to mitigate the general sense of Booth battiness. One couldn't help wondering if the "shot of spiritual morphine" she experienced in Iran, and which now has her praying five times a day, was more or less intense than the joy experienced by her sister during Mayan birthing ceremonies or meetings with the Pope.

But Lauren's own account of her conversion, in a newspaper this week, sounded relatively sane. Perhaps if a woman with some access to the media can talk a bit more about Islam as a religion of peace, we'll have fewer of the ones who stab elected members of Parliament because it's "like, in the Koran".