LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
In a general way, I am in favour of families. I came from one. Since then, I have myself gone into the family thing, more or less voluntarily. See me in the park on a Saturday morning, bleary-eyed, implausibly dressed and surrounded by shrilly hectoring midgets and you'd say, ``Now then, there is a Family Man.''

So the politicians who boldly proclaim themselves to be standing up for the family - most recently, in a pamphlet published this morning, the Prime Minister - are presumably bidding for my vote. Mr Major talks of his ``strong belief in the fundamental importance of the family and our national institutions'' and his determination to protect the family's rights and responsibilities from ``the incursions of the faceless state''. And my question is - why is this sort of talk not reassuring and pleasant, but merely infuriating?

It is partly the politics-speak - the implication that Britain is seething with people plotting to dismantle our historic native families and ship off the wretched huddled fragments to state collective nurseries, or people who think there is a strong case to be made for the ``faceless state'' (a different state, presumably, to the smiley one which Mr Major leads).

Mainly, though, the problem with ``family'' rhetoric is that it implies that families are a source of uncomplicated good and that individuals within them need no further protection or intervention - leave the family alone and everything will be fine. Who believes that? We all know that families are also places where child abuse, neglect and horrible cruelty can occur. We all know that there are bad parents as well as good parents, and that both kinds can Larkin-you-up.

Mostly, the state intervenes where it does because not intervening would bring fury and protests from individuals and newspapers, including this one.

Terry Major-Ball's brother knows this perfectly well - he is posing as a libertarian anti-statist to cheer up some right-wing journalists, but in fact he heads a highly interventionist government (what is the Child Support Agency but the faceless state, and quite right, too). To say you want the state to keep away in order to protect the family is like being pro-air and therefore against state interference against polluters, or pro-housing, and therefore against housing regulations. It being election year, we have purchased a battery-operated office hooey-counter. And this registers, I'm afraid to say, heavily as Serious Tepid Hooey.

I am still having difficulty with some readers who fail to distinguish between the role of columnists and the position of the newspaper. Why do I ``allow'' Polly Toynbee to berate this, or John Lyttle to glorify that? The law and reasonable standards of taste and fairness apart, ``allow'' has nothing to do with it - our columnists are employed to be themselves and to provoke argument or agreement, not to act as glove-puppets for the editor or proprietor. (A fetching array of such puppets, nicely tricked out with bow-ties and detachable facial hair, can be purchased elsewhere, through your usual newsagent.)

Here, the opinion and column slots are, or ought to be, like a free-ranging conversation in a bar or at a good supper party. They are a zig-zagging argument, not ``the line''. If anyone still doubts this, they should reflect on the series of articles against constitutional reform by Richard D North that we have carried this week. The final one is on page 12 of today's paper. They are well-written and compelling. I'm proud we used them; and I disagreed with every word.

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