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

The Saturday Column

Share
Related Topics

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".

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/queenchristina_

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster