Fundamentally wrong on families

Their tired proposals ignore history and reason. The middle-aged moralists must be challenged
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The Independent Online
Just when we thought family matters were being handled sensibly by the Government the champions of familial fundamentalism are once again dominating the political agenda. It began with the Daily Mail's campaign to block the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, then the BBC joined the fray on Tuesday with a television essay "Who Killed the Family?" by Melanie Phillips. The programme certainly lived up to its sensationalist title. A ragbag of suspects - Sixties permissiveness, radical feminism, excessive libertarianism and overly liberal divorce laws - were hauled up before her kangaroo court and found guilty.

This was no sober evaluation of the issues. Instead, home videos of domestic harmony were crudely intercut with slow-motion replays of joy-riding dissolute youths, their masked faces emphasising the gulf between contemporary dehumanised society and intimate family lives in the past. The argument was one-dimensional and it was abundantly clear who were the good guys and who were the bad.

But what was most striking about the programme was the absence of the voices of people forming families today. As so often, those who lined up to opine about them - from Janet Daley to the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks - were all middle-aged or older.

So what of the core thesis on which the programme was based? Is the family dead, and if so who killed it?

Few can dispute that family life has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. Most people cohabit before getting married; a high proportion of marriages end in divorce; the number of single parents continues to rise; a third of babies are now born outside marriage. But these trends are only a partial picture. Most "illegitimate" babies are born to ordinary cohabiting couples. Most people are still marrying, still having children and still just about managing to sustain long-term relationships. Even after break-ups many people want to remarry or settle down again in the future, and people enter relationships almost as quickly as they exit from them. One survey found that while in a single year 3 per cent of children experienced parental separation, 2.5 per cent saw the arrival of a step-parent or the return of a natural parent.

The familial fundamentalists also have remarkably little sense of history. They talk of the "family" as if it were a solid, unchanging, easily definable institution which has only in the past few decades undergone earth-shattering transformation. This is nonsense. Family life was far more variable in the past than we have been led to believe. Cohabitation, remarriage and births outside marriage to common-law couples, were not inventions of the Sixties. Between the mid-18th and mid-19th century, historians estimate, as many as a fifth of all couples in England and Wales were cohabiting, either as a prelude to marriage or as an alternative to it - and, from the 1750s, the rate of illegitimacy rose to unprecedented levels.

But by far the biggest failing of the zealots is their lack of credible solutions beyond rewinding the tape and freezing the frame. Nor are they clear about how to do this. So we're left with an incoherent package of incentives and punishments, carrots and sticks.

Single parents are first in line, with proposals to cut benefits to force them back to work and to make qualification for council housing more stringent. Feckless fathers are also targets, with some moralists advocating an extension of the principles of the Child Support Act to to punish men further. Others are eager to rein inliberal divorce laws.

Such policies lead to absurdities. Penalising single parents would hurt children without improving the stability of relationships. By making divorce harder, relationships between divorcing couples would sour even further, creating difficulties for their children. Even moderate reforms to allow women to evict violent and abusive boyfriends are deemed unacceptable violations of the institution of marriage.

The traditionalists sense that the winds of change are blowing in their direction. Janet Daley said as much yesterday in the Times. So, as the Budget approaches, we should steel ourselves for a recycling of tired proposals such as raising the married couples' tax allowance. Some Tory ladies might even renew their call for a pounds 1,000 marriage bonus, paid after 10 years of "successful" marriage.

Experience suggests that financial inducements have little, if any, effect on people's behaviour. Divorce is costly, and even though women (and children) are hardest hit, they clearly feel that the price of freedom is worth paying because women initiate most divorces.

Nor do incentives look likely to encourage a younger generation to rush to the altar. First-time marriage rates are at their lowest level since 1889. Nearly half of the women born in the Sixties have cohabited, and a fifth of these are expected to give birth while living with a partner.

Beyond fiscal incentives, punishments and moral exhortation, the traditionalists have no grand idea, no practical solutions for strengthening young families or reversing the deterioration of their financial position. Instead, all the zealots have to offer is anger and bile.

Unfortunately, their capacity to fuel moral panic serves to polarise the debate among their opponents - especially an older generation of feminists who frequently find themselves taking up equally absurd positions: change is seen as inherently positive, few costs are recognised. Yet both positions are flawed: the "familists" because their moral authoritarianism means they are unable to cope with diversity and difference; the libertarians because their unwillingness to acknowledge that freedom has brought a new set of problems is motivated by the fear of giving ammunition to their opponents.

What we need now is a debate that starts somewhere between apocalypse and complacency. A starting point would be an acknowledgement that families come in all shapes and sizes, outside marriage as well as inside, and that greater freedom has brought new problems, as well as new solutions, for cohabiting couples and married couples. But we also need to face the fact that while children need parents - and other adults - if they are to grow up happy, confident and stable, the best way to achieve this is not to bully or cajole unhappy parents to get married or to stay married or to make divorce more gladiatorial. We must help people to make deals and compromises rather than apportioning blame. But perhaps the real challenge is to engender a culture that puts the needs of children first, creating the practical conditions for good parenting rather than moralising over family form.

Of course, one piece of legislation cannot change a culture overnight. But Lord Mackay's proposed divorce reform is an important first step. This is why John Major should hold firm against those whose pessimism and lack of vision leads them to seek out scapegoats. After all, if they win, who will be next in the firing line?