If it's a bribe to keep women at home it will need to be a lot bigger

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The most poignant news item last week concerned the death of Moby, the 50ft sperm whale on whose behalf such efforts had been made the week before.

Poor Moby is now expected to become an exhibit in a museum. For some reason, I keep thinking of Moby whenever the word "family" is piously intoned by representatives of the Conservative and Labour parties. Here, too, is a body whose fate politicians anxiously monitor and claim to protect, at least around election time. Here, too, is a creature we are encouraged to feel cosy and sentimental about, at any rate for the next four weeks. But whereas the family, as most of us experience it, is a vigorous, noisy, unwieldy, stubborn and sometimes destructive beast, the family, as most politicians define it, is dead and washed up. It belongs in a museum, under glass.

Both the main party leaders make great play of the institution, Tony Blair promising to "strengthen family life", John Major pledging greater "choice and security".

But it's the Conservative manifesto that strikes the more strident note. At times, it sounds like a headmistress addressing a group of sixth-form girls, circa 1955: "Good prepar- ation for marriage can be an important aid to a successful family," it tells us, provoking blushes and knowing giggles in the back row. It's the Conservatives who also offer the greatest innovation, a tax incentive which will mean that where one half of a married couple gives up work to look after young children or elderly relatives, his or her unused personal allowance will be transferred to the other half. Under the scheme, two million married couples with dependants will be up to pounds 17.50 per week better off. Here is a scheme that strikes at the guilty part of Middle England. Many working parents feel that they don't give enough time and attention to their children; many children, once they reach middle-age, are conscious of failing their ageing parents; many marriages are breaking up that once would have held together. As families come increasingly to depend on two incomes, what were once parental or filial responsibilities are being transferred to others, at a price. Childcare is expensive. Nursing homes spirit away the family silver. It's this widespread unease that the Tories' stay-at-home incentive is intended to meet.

But how can the scheme work? Set aside for a moment the question of whether pounds 900 a year is sufficient temptation for one or other partner to give up the day job to change nappies for a toddler or ancient aunt. Don't raise the issue of whether it's fair that only married couples (not cohabitees or single parents) qualify for this tax break. Suppress the suspicion that here is a policy that will endear itself only to those who vote Conservative already. Perish the thought that this government so keen on parents seeing more of their children is the same government which has fought to keep the British working week the longest in Europe. The real question is: do we want to recreate the family model, or model family, that is implied here? Indeed, did it ever exist?

Perhaps it did, very briefly. No matter how many surveys tell us otherwise, the idea persists that the British family was once a happier, friendlier, more secure and orderly place. In the dream time of the 1950s, somewhere in Myddle England, Mr A and Miss B met, fell in love and decided to marry. He had a steady job, maybe white collar, maybe blue, in the industry long associated with the local area. She worked as a typist, or teacher, but went part-time once married - how else could she cook, wash and keep the house clean for her husband? - and, once pregnant, gave up work altogether (you just did, didn't you; in some jobs you were actually forced to). The loss of income didn't matter; with a bit of scrimping and saving, the money he brought in was enough for both of them. Vegetables grew in the allotment and the small front garden was always tidy.

In time, Mr and Mrs A acquired a television, a hi-fi, a saloon car; they'd never had it so good. When his mother, now widowed, had a stroke, she moved into the spare room, so that Mrs A was able to nurse her. It caused some strain, but it was what you did, what you owed in that lost world where children knew their place and neighbours said good morning to each other and everyone looked up to the Royal Family...

Many of us find our heads playing this flickery cine-film of the not- so-distant past. With luck, common sense and a bit of reading, we come to realise that the 1950s and 1960s were more complicated than that, that only false memory syndrome could give them their retrospective Arcadian glow. But if by mischance we have embarked on a career in politics, we may have a vested interest in keeping the myth alive.

The trouble for would-be MPs is that today's voters are either too young to be impressed by sepia folk memories, or else, if over 30, too smart not to check them against their own experiences. Such a check may prompt the thought that there is nothing very desirable about one parent out working all hours while the other dances constant attendance at home. And if, as in my case, you grew up with a less stereotypical arrangement - a mother who worked full-time even in the heyday of the 1950s - it's simply impossible to think of the one-working-parent-only household as the natural order of being.

The Conservative manifesto, for all its inveighing against political correctness in the social services, is itself too politically correct to suggest that the parent who stays at home will be a woman. The word it uses is "spouse". But there's little doubt who can be meant. It's not as if our society over the past 15 years has done much to prepare or encourage British men for a nurturing, servicing or caring role. The epitome of masculinity in the 1980s was a stockbroker in red braces, in at the office at dawn and not back home again till after the children's bedtime. Even in the chastened 1990s, it's understood that when a man is "spending more time with his family," that is a synonym for redundancy, dismissal or political disgrace.

If most men aren't yet domesticated enough happily to assume the role of househusband, even though market forces pushed them that way, women for their part surely prefer liberation from the home to being cooped up as clucking hens. Those of them happy in paid employment will regard pounds 17.50 a week contemptuously as the sort of cheap stunt to entrap them as Piers Merchant was entrapped by the Sun. Even those women already staying at home to look after children or ailing relations, who will be happy for the little bit extra, may object to the exploitation of the family by the current campaigning - the way geriatrics are wheeled out and babies kissed for electoral ends; the way all these politicians suffer the little children to come unto them for the sake of a photo opportunity.

As every voter knows, if MPs cared as much about the family as they say, they'd be campaigning for child-friendly hours at Westminster. And, as every voter also knows, MPs who extol the institution of the family are often the very ones who find it hardest to live within its moral boundaries.

The logic would be for politicians to be less sanctimonious about the family and more responsive to the different forms it can take. They might even find this would win rather than lose them votes.

The days of Mr and Mrs A and their 2.4 children are over. It's the age of their offspring now, Mr B and Ms C, with their children and stepchildren, their juggling of work and childcare arrangements, their flexitime and short-term contracts and school runs, their less rigid sense of the difference between work and home. In the new order, you can't expect a job for life, and maybe not a spouse for life, either. And the family is part of this, complex and delicate and multi-faceted, not the lumbering patriarchy, the dead whale, sanctified by desperate politicians.