Relative values: Could government take on the task of making happy families?

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The Independent Online
YOU maybe unaware of the fact but yesterday was National Parenting Day. I was so unaware of it that I carried on as normal. I went to work, my kids went to school , I did five minutes of quality single parenting ("No, you cannot watch Scream 2") and took the cat to the vet to insure that she could no longer go around irresponsibly giving birth to kittens that she does not seem interested in communicating with in any way whatsoever.

No one sent me a card congratulating me on my parenting skills, but I expect this is because National Parenting Day is a new invention. It comes as all new inventions must, from the think -tank still unfortunately known as Demos. They have patented the idea in an effort to get away from the rather sectarian Mother's Day and Father's day and also to publicise their latest pamphlet, Relative Values: Support for relationships and parenting, written by Ed Straw, brother of Jack.

The report could be summarised by one of Straw's basic observations: "Happiness is good economics." Unhappiness costs government money. The fall-out from divorce, dysfunction and family breakdown is costly in terms of benefits, crime rates, drug and alcohol dependency. Two questions inevitably follow. What should governments do to make us happier? And is the role of government to insure personal happiness? Clearly Ed Straw thinks that the answer to the second question is yes, arguing for a national programme of investment in education and support for relationships and parenting.

Strong and committed relationships with parents equipped to parent is the ideal. Fine. Indeed many of the things that Straw is arguing for - counselling programmes and agencies to provide help with step-families, redundancy and stress-related illnesses, for instance - already exist in a somewhat shambolic form. The novelty of Straw's idea is that all these various agencies should be drawn together into an institution much like the NHS called, he suggests, The National Relationship and Parenting Service. Just as fifty years ago the nation's health became a matter of public policy so, he argues, the same vision and drive is needed to deal with our emotional life.

Apart from this dreadful name - I suggest the word relationship be banned from public discourse altogether - this smacks of Big Brother-style intrusion into people's private lives. Most people may want support when things go wrong but they don't want to be told how to do things in the first place, especially not by a government body. Demos, who has never shied away from the concept of social engineering, maintains that none of Straw's proposals are to be seen as moral instruction but as simply educational.

This seems rather a fudge because parts of this government would clearly like to promote family values, while others are wary of what happened to the Tories' Back to Basics campaign. While Straw uses the phrase "holistic government" as though the role of the state was somehow to unite us body and soul in some brave new world where every day is National Parenting Day, many will balk at the implication that the populace can be counselled into compliance. If we are aware of the economic cost of family breakdown then we must surely also be aware of the economic causes. Family life has changed, rather than broken down, as women have entered the work-place; and no amount of "relationship education" will stem the repercussions of this.

Straw is right to suggest that we know already what works. We know for instance that prevention is better than cure when it comes to crime; we know that abuse leads to abuse, that cycles of deprivation can and need to be stopped. There already exists a body of knowledge and skills about how to make relationships more fulfilling. Some of it exists in the professional world of therapy, counselling and social work. The rest of it exists in the informal and feminised world of popular culture, which continually instructs us on how to have better sex, better kitchens, better children.

As we have come to expect from Demos publications, the pamphlet is far better at offering novel but traditional political solutions, such as the setting up of a new government agency, than it is at dealing with the actual culture in which we live. Straw makes the bizarre suggestion that soap operas should incorporate realistic cases of domestic crisis and positive examples of families who work through their problems successfully. Obviously only someone who never watches soaps would make such a proposal. Besides the fact that soaps are popular dramas rather than broadcasts on behalf of The Relationship Party, soaps deal with family breakdown day in and day out. Most of the families in Ramsay Street, Brookside Close and Albert Square have experienced breakdown, reconciliation, death, destruction, drug problems and HIV education on a scale that Straw could only dream about. No one in Neighbours for instance has sex without hours of discussion before hand. Are they old enough? Are they committed? Have they sorted out the sexually transmitted disease aspect? Do their parents know?

The point, then, is that much of what Straw would like to happen is already happening but it is not co-ordinated or legislated for by any governmental agency. How far politicians can incorporate the language of emotion that supposedly swept the country after Diana's death into public policy pronouncements is debatable.

Obviously all governments engage in a certain amount of social engineering and most of us support this, whether it is drink-drive campaigns or sex education in schools. Yet despite a willingness to be more open about what causes problems, both personally and politically, for society, there is still a vast avoidance of certain crucial issues.

We are still "in denial" about some our difficulties. While the socialisation or lack of it of young men has been recently acknowledged as a fundamental problem - a case feminists have made for years - it has now become apparent even to government that unless masculine identity can be reconstructed and adaptive it becomes destructive. Likewise blathering on about parenting is no good when fathers refuse to do it or work such long hours that they physically cannot.

So let me just share something with you: buzzwords will not change people's reality. If politicians want to support "parenting", let them leave it to us choose to be counselled or not. Instead, they can just give us parental sick leave, shorter hours, tax breaks and decent nurseries. That's the kind of family therapy we really need.