Help the poor bastards

Funds, not just fine words, are needed to revitalise the family, argues Michael McMahon
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A LITTLE while ago I was in the main corridor of the urban comprehensive in which I teach when I heard a loud wailing in the middle distance. Experienced teachers don't usually flinch at such sounds, but this one provoked an instinctive, urgent response, for it sounded very much like the crying of babies. It was. There, walking towards me, were Sara and Amy: sisters of 16 and 17, who had left school at their earliest opportunity, this year and last - although, as in many such cases, their attendance had faded towards the end of their educational careers. They were pushing neat little baby buggies. Sara's child was a fortnight old; Amy's, 10 months. The girls had returned to show off their achievements. I made the right noises, and admired the tiny children. In a sad kind of way, I was happy for their mothers, whose faces were, for once, aglow with unaffected pride and genuine joy.

There was no mention made of fathers, of course, and it seemed somehow discourteous and inappropriate to raise the subject.

"You'd better get used to these kids, sir. They'll both be coming to school here!" joked Sara.

"And they won't bunk off like we did. We'll make sure of that!" added her sister.

It is unlikely that Tony Blair's ministerial group on the family would share Amy's confidence. It has been meeting for the past year under the chairmanship of Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and its Green Paper, Supporting Families, will be published this week. Addressing the problem of single teenage mothers has been one of its most important tasks. Britain has more of them than any other European country. But the Green Paper is about much more than the problem of young single mums, whose existence, after all, is just one of the symptoms of a more general breakdown in the family that Tony Blair is determined to address. England and Wales have the highest divorce rate in Europe. A third of today's births are to unmarried mothers, three million children live with only one parent, and more than two million in step-families.

Not everyone is troubled by these statistics, but it is a matter of record that Mr Blair sees the family as the moral unit in which good manners, respect, and the difference between right and wrong are learned. The starting point for his Green Paper is that children are better off with two parents than with one, and that marriage is preferable to cohabitation because married couples are more likely to stay together.

The paper has not been published yet, but the pre-emptive backlash has been considerable. Many intelligent, educated, and no doubt blameless middle-class people have been affronted that New Labour should dare to offer old-fashioned marriage as the model of procreative partnership. In smart broadsheet newspapers the family was last week put under a liberal microscope and used to score political points, much as it is in the right- wing tabloids. "I seem to thrive on [single parenthood's] unique blend of intimacy and autonomy," wrote Barbara Ellen in the Observer. (Amy and Sara could relate to that, I thought - for a while, at least.) And an ICM poll, meanwhile, has suggested that only 40 per cent of us believe that "the Government should actively support family values". Not much encouragement here for Mr Blair, who is warned against supporting the ideal of a traditional "family-that-never-was".

But to attack Mr Blair for this kind of idealism looks pretty churlish and self-indulgent from the sharp end of society, where the results of the collapse of the family are felt, however you define "family". In the salaried middle classes and the blue haze beyond, domestic arrangements can fail and accommodations can be reached, but in great swathes of the urban underclass, there is something approaching conjugal anarchy. Domestic arrangements shift constantly and informally, and under-parented children just don't know where to look for role models or guidance.

A couple of years ago, I saw this for myself, when I was asked to stand in for our student counsellor during his sabbatical. I wasn't surprised at what I encountered, but experiencing it all at first-hand was certainly a shock. I discovered that many of the children who exhibited disturbed and disturbing patterns of behaviour - and many of those who did not - lived in dysfunctional households, some of which were characterised by violence, drunkenness and drug abuse. But what nearly all had in common was a lack of domestic stability. The self-hatred and arm-slashing self- mutilation of several girls became instantly understandable when they disclosed that they had been sexually assaulted by their mum's latest boyfriend but one, or was it three? The violently disruptive boy who bunked off school but who kept coming in for his free dinner turned out to have run away from what he no longer regarded as his home to live rough on the common. A boy's "attendance problems" were less surprising when you knew that he had woken up one morning, to find his single mother's body on the kitchen floor. She had died from a drugs overdose. A "difficult" boy told me that his mother had run off with another man when he was two, leaving him to the care of a father who was always in the pub, whilst he was left to sit up, from the age of six, watching his older brothers smoke dope. No wonder he was mixed up.

What I experienced during those six months taught me a lot. Right-wing tabloids might demonise young single mums, but many of these girls are just snatching at happiness in the only way they know how - however doomed it might be. And many of them struggle heroically for their children with a selflessness that should shame more than a few of the comfortably married. My time as a counsellor taught me not to judge; but it did not teach me to give up my judgement. What those poor, damaged children yearned for (and what many of them gave up hoping for) was domestic stability: a mum and a dad to love and look after them, and to be there for them at the end of the day, come what may. And most of their mothers would have loved to have provided it for them, too, if they could only find the right man next time. Of course, bad luck, bad thinking, and just plain badness have meant that many "traditional" marriages are not - and were not - like that. But what Mr Blair wants is to hold up the model as an ideal and help people to achieve it, where that's possible.

From the response of some, though, you might be forgiven for thinking that Mr Blair wanted to impose old-fashioned marriage upon state-selected partners for life, with public stoning for any breach of marital commitment. That the Government should seek to encourage "traditional" marriage is anathema to moral liberals, who believe that we should all be allowed to say and do as we like - so long as we don't challenge the idea of moral liberalism. There has been much special pleading by forward-thinking bodies such as Demos, who have proposed, among other things, the introduction of "fixed term" marriages. (Imagine it. It's spring-time in the last year of my 10-year partnership. At last, I can say to the colleague I have fancied for years: "Fancy a candle-lit supper first week in November? And I suppose a quick spot of intimacy would be out of the question?")

Mr Blair's plans face not just philosophical challenges, but practical ones, too. Underwriting "parental leave" and employing and training health visitors to act as front-line marriage counsellors are interesting ideas, but they don't come cheap. At least requiring registrars to play the part of secular vicars who "give advice to couples on parental responsibility and stress how important it is that fathers remain with children and their mothers" won't cost much. But it surely won't do much, either - certainly not for Amy, Sara, or the many thousands like them. For unless Mr Blair's Green Paper results in a significant release of funds to provide real support for people at the margins of society, those who are struggling to keep together families of whatever description, the whole exercise will have no more value than the fancy words that registrars will have to say in what must surely be the definitive expression of pious hopes - albeit expressed in terms scrupulously shorn of piety.