Steve Richards: Family values have the Tories in a twist

A mighty roar calls for government to laud the family. I don't see how or why it should

What is it about the politics of the family? On most issues I tend to find myself in a tiny minority arguing that government has a responsibility to be more active rather than less. Yet on the issue of families in general and marriage in particular the tables are turned. There is a mighty roar calling for the government to intervene and champion the family. I do not see how it can or why it should.

Planning cuts galore and hailing a smaller state, the Conservatives are pledged to spend more than £4bn on tax cuts for married couples. Or at least they are pledged to act over a full term, an understandably evasive formula. If they spend any less than several billion pounds the reductions in couples' tax bills will be so puny as to be comical: "I loathe you and was planning to leave, but if we stay together we will be better off by 25 pence a year". A government either goes for this allowance in a big way or does not bother.

Their former leader, Iain Duncan Smith, is obviously correct to point out that children in poorer areas do better when parents stay together compared with those brought up in broken homes. On the whole that is bound to be the case, although there will be a lot of misery in some of those families where loveless parents stay put. Quite separately David Cameron evidently approves of marriage as a matter of conviction. Such judgements are not universally shared, but they are not especially surprising or controversial. What is interesting is their faith in government to condition people's behaviour. Most of the time Cameron is one of those putting the case for government doing less. Encouraging couples to marry or stay married is the ultimate form of micro management, turning government into the equivalent of a national couples' counselling bureau.

Such a form of centralised hyper-activity goes too far even for those of us who feel reassured, rather than horrified, when we hear that the government is taking over a bank or a train company. I doubt if it will work either. The teenager who gets a girl pregnant on a Glasgow housing estate is not going to hang around for the marriage tax allowance. In some cases it is not clear that hanging around would be desirable.

Weakly, the government feels compelled to be the families' champion too, although it is wise enough to oppose the tax cut for married couples. Yesterday ministers promised more resources for Relate and other mediating services as well as additional support for fathers and grandparents. But the government's proposals took the form of a green paper, a comically tentative commitment in the light of the imminent election campaign.

When a green paper is published soon after an election victory no one quite knows whether the proposals will see the light of day. I remember the great drum roll that greeted Frank Field's green paper on welfare reform in the early spring of 1998. By the summer Field had left the government and his paper was nowhere to be seen. For the proposals in yesterday's green paper to be implemented it is necessary for Labour to win the election, the Chancellor after the election to find the cash, and whoever is in charge of family policy to spend it in this way. We are leaping lots of hurdles.

But it is of course a pre-election ploy, one that will not get very far in the short term because the issue of 'family' is too vague to resonate on either side of the divide. For good reasons, crusades with an imprecise moral edge do not take off in Britain. Some Tories have pointed fearfully to John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign as a catastrophic failure, but that was a failure of language and projection. Major was not seeking to make any moral judgements. Instead he hoped to get the agenda back to basic issues such as schools and crime, which he never did. The slogan was wrongly perceived as the start of a crusade and was quietly dropped when it appeared that most Conservative MPs were gay or having affairs. The dropping of the slogan was done without anyone noticing. Major stopped referring to "Back to Basics" and that was the end of the matter.

It is harder to dump specific policies, which is partly why Cameron will stick with his marriage tax allowance, even though he will not have the spare cash if he wins and a lot of the beneficiaries will be well off already. Labour will not get very far in claiming to be the party for families even if it takes a more generous view of what constitutes a family. Most voters do not see the connection between better schools and hospitals and government activity. They are not going to make links with their private arrangements as couples and the convolutions at the top of various political parties. The family will not be an issue at the next election.

What should be an issue is the question of precisely what governments can and cannot do, a debate that is rarely held between parties or within them, although in fairness to senior Conservatives they have reflected on the issue more than Labour dared to do in the run up to the 1997 election. Why is it that elected politicians cannot or choose not to prevent the takeover of Cadbury's and yet feel powerful enough to persuade Esther and Bill on a Glasgow housing estate to get married?

The confusion is multi-layered. Yesterday in Prime Minister's Question Time the most liberal of Liberal Democrat leaders, Nick Clegg, attacked the government for failing to intervene in the takeover. As Brown pointed out this was an unusual position for a liberal to take.

Nonetheless, other inconsistencies take some explanining too. There was the supposedly powerful Peter Mandelson asking powerlessly that shareholders reject the takeover at Cadbury and Brown yesterday saying with a similar impotence he "hoped" the new owners would respect the workforce. At the same time weak-kneed elected figures are telling us all to get married or claim to have policies that will help to keep families together.

It is time for a debate about the limits and scope of government.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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