Leading Article: The au pair argument

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NERVOUS husbands all over Britain will no doubt be hugely relieved at the Home Office's decision that au pairs can be as strapping, blonde and Swedish as you like, so long as they are not male. None the less, the decision is both petty and profoundly wrong. That the Home Secretary has allowed Johan Egelstedt, the young man in question, to spend a month in Britain as a visitor may preserve him from immediate ridicule. It does nothing to justify the rule that au pairs must be female.

A conservative could defend the regulation that forbids men to be au pairs on the grounds that society should take seriously the atavistic disquiet many people will have felt at the idea of an au pair boy. The impulses of society are not random or unreasonable, though they are often wrong. When the regulation was framed, it must have seemed to be no more than a piece of conscientious bureaucratic plugging of a possible loophole in the immigration regulations. The idea that small children would be looked after by women at all times was part of the structure of society, to be defended without a thought. The alternative would be unshaven Australian nannies using their little charges as Frisbees in the public parks.

In so far as the regulation reflects a care for the well-being of families, it is defensible and even admirable. But every argument that can be put up in its favour turns out, on examination, to be flawed. The first point is that the state should not in general prescribe what arrangements, if any, parents should make for the care of their children. Some minimum standards of kindness and cleanliness must be enforced by law, but government should be wary of trying to impose any single best solution.

The general disintegration of families suggested by statistics is something that any government should be worried about. And the backlash against feminism would have us believe that it is the loss of traditional sex roles which has brought about all miseries of modern moralities. This argument has only one flaw: it is false. Such evidence as we have suggests that single-parent families are created by irresponsible men rather than uppity women. Perhaps Kenneth Clarke believes all this would change if the country were flooded by hunky Swedish au pair boys, but the British middle-class woman is surely more virtuous than he supposes. She will not desert her husband for some chit half his age just because he is better looking and can wash and iron, clean and cook. Only men do things like that.

The joke conceals a serious point. The masculinisation of child care, to coin a nasty piece of jargon, is part of a wider and admirable movement in society. Some of its expressions may appear a little perverse, as in the appearance of male midwives (though hardly anyone finds male gynaecologists odd). But in general, the fashion for men to spend more time and effort nurturing their children is not just a matter of fairness, but something which will promote more durable families. The masculinisation of child care is our best hope of counteracting the feminisation of poverty.