Terence Blacker: You can never discount the past

'Traditional values' are always nearby, waiting to reassert themselves

How the audience laughed at Islington's King's Head Theatre on Monday when, as part of an evening of politically incorrect music called Taboo-Be-Do!, the singer Victoria Hart delivered a heart-tugging little number from 1928 in praise of a woman's domestic drudgery. The song "When I Am Housekeeping For You" came from the dark ages of gender relations when the best way for a woman to express love for a man was to wash his dishes and mop his floor, all the while singing, in suitably simpering tones, "Laughing not weeping/I'll go to my sweeping/When I am housekeeping for you."

Yet sometimes progress in these matters is not quite as rapid and irreversible as we like to think. The subject of women and housework was tackled this week in a report for the Centre for Policy Studies by the sociologist Professor Geoff Dench. The old female craving for dusting, polishing and tidying apparently is not only alive and well, but may even be on the increase.

The evidence cited is extracted from the annual British Social Attitudes survey. In 2002, when mothers of children of four and under were asked whether men and women should have different roles, a mere two per cent replied in the affirmative. In 2006, the figure rose to 17 per cent. Over a third of the same group believed that family life would suffer if a woman worked full-time.

Launching itself from the somewhat rickety springboard of these figures, the Dench thesis takes wing. "Women with young children are going back to the very traditional division of labour in which they want the husband as breadwinner," he argues. "Having tried full-time work themselves they have found the home much more interesting."

Reports of this kind, usually delivered with a plummy, fat-bottomed certainty unjustified by the evidence, risk prompting other, wider conclusions among those who read them. In this case, the first and most obvious is that one can take almost any statistics in the public domain and build an argument around them. The idea that, in spite of feminism, the emancipation of the market and a more grown-up attitude among most men to domestic life, an increasing number of woman now yearn to be at home and are pining for a male breadwinner is difficult to take too seriously.

Yet the report is interesting because it confirms, yet again, that one is unwise to assume that the direction of modern life is towards good sense, honesty and tolerance. There are lurches backwards. Old prejudices can be as difficult to shift as those stubborn stains which are the bane of a housewife's life.

Briefly, it seems that upper-class twit politics belongs to the age of Supermac, Boothby and Douglas-Home, the next the place is awash with Old Etonians. A few decades back, the military-industrial complex was discredited beyond redemption; with a new century, the old game was made new in Iraq.

No progress can be taken for granted. Those "traditional values" are always nearby, waiting to reassert themselves.