Family life is in crisis - and the left can no longer ignore this vital issue

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The Independent Online

Family life is in crisis in Britain. And it is quite outrageous that this issue, central to all our futures, is being hijacked by the self-righteous right (they are at it again over football hooliganism) because the left lacks the moral substance and honesty to look at what is happening.

Family life is in crisis in Britain. And it is quite outrageous that this issue, central to all our futures, is being hijacked by the self-righteous right (they are at it again over football hooliganism) because the left lacks the moral substance and honesty to look at what is happening.

Most left-of-centre people I know recoil when I bring this up. I think they think I am turning into a right-wing prat, like Paul Johnson. But why is it right-wing to ask whether, in creating invaluable freedoms and rights, we have ended up with casualties, mostly children, without a voice or any influence to determine what is happening to them? Surely only the insanely complacent can continue to ignore the cumulative evidence that British children are suffering from unprecedented levels of emotional trauma and mental illness.

These ideological bun fights are, in any case, absurd. Both sides have contributed to the state we are in, though neither wants to accept responsibility. The Sixties generation changed society immeasurably, often for the better. But it made self-gratification into the new religion and the new orthodoxy. The Eighties Thatcherites changed the economic landscape of this country, but their economic libertarianism and consumerism also encouraged people to think in intensely individualistic and self-serving ways. The idea of choice, freedom and self-realisation entered the bloodstream of the nation, and every part of the body became infected. Marriage has become either just another stop on that bus ride to self-fulfilment or just another consumer item to be dispensed with when one is bored or when a new product presents itself.

Feminism was crucial to progress, because it helped to release the potential of more then half the population, but it, too, became excessively self-centred as it then developed. The influential feminist Jill Tweedie wrote just before her untimely death that she had advised her own children not to have children. "They cause endless worry, and are now the greatest threat to women's equality." Well, that kind of feminism, which so cruelly rejects nurturing, is not my feminism.

I went to a conference at the weekend on the future of families, where it became even more clear that this issue cannot be fudged any longer. There is a ground swell of people out there who are seriously concerned about family bonds and the stability they can bring. And by "family" they don't just mean the narrow, nuclear model, but any formation in which there is a deep and permanent sense of obligation between individuals through hard and good times, and in which children's needs are prioritised. Even as I write this, all sorts of counter-arguments come to me. Family life can be brutal. It can crush and destroy; I would never want to deny that. But where there is a respect for both the individual and communal life, children especially do fare better.

The true left has always made a case for economic mutualities - the rich have an obligation to support those with less, because we are social beings. Why, then, does it fail to apply the theory to personal relationships? It is possible to be a feminist and a social democrat and be for a stable family life. We must embrace concepts of duty and nurturing as part of our humanity while continuing to fight for equality and individual freedoms.

Take child care. The academic Carole Ulanowsky believes parental nurturing has become dangerously undervalued in our society: "Increasingly, the lives of young and vulnerable family members are given over to the full-time management of others. This, in spite of a growing body of compelling evidence that full-time, paid-for services for babies and very young children rarely work to their benefit..." Such children can grow up with only paid-for people meeting most of their needs in life.

Their lives are completely structured. For pre-verbal children, biologically bonded to their parents, the experience must be terrifying. Children who were inadequately nurtured in the early years can have problems emerging as confident and autonomous human beings.

Employment is a necessity for most of us. But if we know that parents working all hours are destroying family life, should we not at least begin a discussion about that, instead of rushing out policies designed to get even more people on to the treadmill?

It is important to enable lone parents to work, because no child can be lifted out of poverty while living on benefits. But for very young children, surely it is more important for the state to provide properly for the child to be with its own parent.

We might all ponder, too, how we could spend more unstructured time with our children (not quality time - just time, much of it loose and unaccounted for) if we trimmed down our needs. It may not be possible for those in full-time, demanding jobs; but people can choose the part-time option, or self-employment, as my husband did. He had a secure and exciting job that he gave up to work at home to see more of our daughter. It is scary with both of us working as freelances, but she's worth it.

Divorces - now at an all-time high - are another destabilising factor. Even the free-living Martin Amis accepts that when he left his sons for his new partner, he diminished their ability to trust love. Vast numbers of children are coping with backpack living, trundling between parents and their reconstituted families. Which employer gives parents time off work to help their children adjust to their new way of life?

Ulanowsky and others have discovered that most people in prison come from homes where there was little security and continuity. A BBC survey for the series The Soul of Britain has found that 80 per cent of people think their parents have influenced them more than anything else. The survey has also found that substantially more people today than in 1981 believe parents need to be more dutiful toward their families and less self-obsessed. Those who believe parents should not sacrifice their own needs fell from 18 per cent, in 1981, to 7 per cent, in 2000. At least there is now an aspiration for something more humane. But is the left going to take up the challenge?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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