There is a crisis with the family. But it has nothing to do with single mothers

The right knows it cannot bolt the marriage door. Instead they want to lavish tax relief on married couples

The last time The Family was a major issue in British politics was 12 years and an eternity ago. Back in 1993, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, praised New Jersey for "bravely" deciding to stop giving benefits to single mothers. Margaret Thatcher rose from her crypt to suggest that single mothers should live in Salvation Army hostels and give up their children for adoption if their families wouldn't support them.

This issue never really died, but it did crawl away to the corners of the Tory benches and the right-wing press. But then - this week - the Prime Minister was asked by an audience of Christians about teenage mothers. Some of what he said was unobjectionable: that "trying to bring up a family when you're 16 or 17 is pretty miserable. They'd be better to invest in their own future with our help to get a better life."

There's a hint here - just a hint - that the Government is quietly trying to stem the rise in single motherhood in a humane way. Rather than offer harsh moral bromides and threat of benefit cuts, the Government is giving poor 17-year-olds £70 a week to stay in education. This is the only proven way to reduce teenage pregnancy. If you keep teens at school - with some hope of a job and a life - they are far less likely to fill their wombs as a way of filling their lives.

But - as so often with Blair - rather than sell his progressive policies, he chose to appease the right. He continued, "We have to understand the underlying causes of crime. Some young girls and women who start families very young are piling up problems for the future."

Conservative commentators seized on this as "proof" for their favourite tunes. Since the 1970s, they have been developing a coherent (and superficially persuasive) analysis of the family. It goes like this: The nuclear family - the eternal bedrock of human society - has been in meltdown since the 1960s. Since the brakes were removed on the divorce laws, marriage has now become a "Till Lawyers Do Us Part" commitment. Worse still, the death of stigma means that half of all children are now born to unmarried mums. The welfare state has only made this worse, by taking over the breadwinner role and rendering fathers irrelevant.

The people who pay the price for this growth in self-indulgence are children, they argue, who can no longer look to the family as a source of stability. The nuclear family is now finding its Chernobyl with the rise of an angry, undisciplined, often criminal generation of fatherless children.

Well, there has indeed been a radical shift. When my mother got pregnant in 1969, she felt obliged to marry my dad immediately. When - 30 years later - my sister got pregnant, the idea of stomping up the aisle with a man she didn't love would have seemed surreal. The phrase "shotgun marriage" has disappeared from the language.

But if you look closely, the conservative analysis is based on a string of myths. Professor Linda Nicholson of Washington University conducted a detailed study of European families. She proved the nuclear family is a fairly recent invention, born among the upper classes in the 18th century. Only then did couples begin to have the personal wealth (or inclination) to rear their children alone in a separate home, instead of jumbled up in all sorts of combinations with a huge extended family.

So what's happening now is not - as the Spenglerian conservatives believe - an unprecedented dissolution of the family. The family has always been an institution that evolves and changes over time. The total dominance of the nuclear family in the mid-20th century was a response to particular historical forces, not an eternal moral truth. Today, we are seeing a healthy proliferation of different family types. Look around you and you'll see many nuclear families - but also step-families, gay partnerships, single parents, unmarried couples with kids and plenty more.

It is true that these new species of family bring their own problems - but so did the revered nuclear family of the 1950s. As Germaine Greer puts it, "The illusion of stable family life was built on the silence of suffering women, who lived on what their husbands thought fit to give them, did menial work for a pittance ... and endured abuse silently because of their children."

The 1950s nuclear family was so stable because women were locked in, unable to divorce because of social stigma and certain poverty. As soon as they had the freedom, many ran: even today, two thirds of divorces are instigated by women. The right knows it cannot bolt the marriage door again. Instead, they want to bribe women to stay in marriages by lavishing tax relief over married couples.

There's only one problem: that wouldn't deal with the problem of damage to children. The social analyst Louie Burghe recently studied the effect on children of family breakdown, and she found that children started to do worse at school long before their parents' divorce takes place, not after. This proves that the social problems associated by the right with divorce are actually due to bad relationships; the divorce is just an afterthought. Trying to glue together a broken marriage will have no effect - the child is still stuck with parents who can't stand each other. (As somebody who spent half my childhood praying for my parents to split up, I feel the emotional force of this research.)

Similarly, the problems associated with single parenthood are often simply the product of the poverty that accompanies it. Some 61 per cent of single-parent families were in poverty in 2000, far more than any other family form. As the sociologist EE Cashmore puts it, "Lone parents do not need a partner so much as a partner's income." The conservative "solution" - to redistribute wealth towards married couples and away from single parents - would only reinforce this problem.

So what can the Government do when it comes to the family? For starters, it can acknowledge that families come in many shapes - all flawed in their own ways - and offer a baggy, flexible legal framework. But even more importantly, the Government must deal with the real family crisis - the one the right never talks about. It's dead simple: British parents have hardly any time to spend with their children. Every parent I know is gnawed by guilt that they don't see their children enough.

Labour has - to be fair - legislated to deal with this crisis in the family with a package of rights that free up some time, from paid maternity and paternity leave to flexitime for part-time workers. And what did the "pro-family" Tories say? They attacked all this as "red tape" and "an attack on business. A real pro-family party would be calling for the Government to go further and introduce a maximum working week - but the Conservative Party's pro-family views are trumped by its market fundamentalism every time.

The real enemy of the family today is our culture of extreme overwork. It will always be easy to displace our society's guilt about never seeing our children on to single mothers. But the real crisis is much closer to home.

Johann@johannhari.com

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