Stripped down to essentials, the revolt against the Divorce Bill and the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill is in both cases a revolt against the removal of opportunity to punish individuals who would avoid or escape marriage. It is not the Divorce Bill's ending of six-month "quickies" that its opponents abhor, nor its introduction of a "cooling-off" period, or its encouragement of mediation in place of acrimonious court battles. What rankles is the lifting of blame: the proposal that, one year after separation (instead of two years, as at present), a couple might end their union without one accusing the other of adultery or unreasonable behaviour. No, the finger must be pointed, the offence daubed on the door, the escapee tarred and feathered.
Similarly, the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill has proved unpalatable to the rebels not because it seeks to protect battered women from eviction, but because it extends this protection, already available to wives, to cohabitees. Those females whose union is unsanctified by marriage do not deserve such niceties. Nor, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, can they be trusted not to lie and cheat every innocent property-owning male out of his home and castle.
Neither of Lord Mackay's Bills has been hurriedly conceived or cobbled together in a panic, in the style of the Child Support Act or Dangerous Dogs Act. Both are the product of lengthy deliberation and wide consultation; both have won cross-party support. Each represents an attempt to accommodate changing patterns of family life and, when things go wrong, to minimise pain and suffering, especially for women and children.
They belong to the broad sweep of liberal social reform that can be traced back to the Married Women's Property Act and the universal franchise. It brought us divorce by consent, abortion by choice and adult homosexual love with impunity; next came equal pay and opportunity, greater freedom of expression, sanctions against racial hatred and wife-beating. Though limited and often flawed, these measures have helped to make Britain a more open, tolerant and compassionate democracy, more inclined to respect individuals regardless of rank or status, and better prepared to defend its most vulnerable members.
When it first supported the Mackay reforms, John Major's Cabinet subscribed, perhaps inadvertently, to this rationalist, civil libertarian school. Accordingly, good government requires a thorough understanding of social and economic change and a will to harness change for the promotion of shared, humanitarian values.
Good government deals with the world as it finds it, and as it anticipates it will become. It takes the view that opportunity and dignity enhance an individual's ability to live within the law and contribute to the common good, while poverty and degradation tend to have the opposite effect. It favours acknowledgement over blame and reform over punishment. It is modernist in that it believes that human beings still have a capacity to improve if they maintain a forward rather than a backward momentum. It believes that wisdom and virtue are strongest if they are grown in human experience, rather than grafted on by instruction and enforced by regulations.
What now threatens to blow the Government off course is a very different tradition: social authoritarianism, which has, for some time now, been fighting for the soul of the Tory party. This is pessimistic about human nature, distrustful of change and controlling in its responses. It flourishes in times of uncertainty because it feeds on fear and peddles the hope of return to a known and stable past.
The family is a favoured battleground: symbol of security and social order which everyone can recognise. It carries such a wide range of meanings that it can seem important to all of us, regardless of our personal experience. But the social authoritarians champion one particular version: the family based on Christian marriage to the death, with breadwinning father and home-making, child-caring mother. This offers up a useful herd of scapegoats: lone mothers, homosexuals, divorcees, cohabiting couples - all such deviants can be blamed for society's ills.
In propaganda terms it is much easier to promote a single, simple model, complete with heroes and villains, than to defend the tangled diversity that is real family life in late-20th-century Britain. It is far more complex and demanding to promote the essence of "the family" - that quality of human relations, which bonds us together, brings out the best in us and meets our shared and individual needs. However, good propaganda is not the same as good government. The latter requires family policies that comprehend and cut with the grain of change, that move with the times to maximise the benefits and minimise the dangers of contemporary experience.
The Cabinet has wobbled and retreated on the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill; it has wavered and doubted over the Divorce Bill - because the very foundations of its social policy are uncertain. Is it for conformity or diversity? Is it nostalgic or progressive? Ancient or modern?
We can see Labour, too, twisting and turning between the two tendencies. On the one hand there is Jack Straw's offensive against beggars, drunks and squeegee merchants; on the other Tony Blair's passionate call, in his speech to the Labour Party conference, for a "new social order, with rules for today", for a tough line against prejudice, and for "no discrimination on grounds of disability, gender, age, sexuality or race ... In its place, tolerance and respect."
Can either side develop a distinctive family policy to suit the present and the future, not the past? The Government is clearly in disarray and heavily compromised by its own record. Planned cuts in benefits for lone mothers, the widening gap between rich and poor, deteriorating schools and cohorts of unemployed parents give the lie to any claims it might wish to make about being "pro-family".
Labour has a better chance of getting this right, but remains uncertain about how to set out its stall. "Behind strong communities lie strong families," declared Tony Blair in his conference speech. "In the family people learn to respect and care for each other. Destroy that in a family and you cannot rebuild it in a country." He wants every area of policy to be examined for its effect on "the family".
What is still missing is a clear indication of what Labour really means by "the family". Blair is on record acknowledging that families come in all shapes and sizes and there is not one correct format. But what produces that essential quality of human relations that is found in many but not all families? And what are the implications for public policy?
Families are first and foremost about bringing up children: loving, supporting and protecting them when they are dependent and enabling them to grow into dependable adults, so that they in turn can raise their own children and care for their parents if the need arises. Children, whatever their circumstances, need decent homes to live in, schools to learn in, streets and parks to play in, protection from neglect and abuse, and a reasonable expectation of paid work in the future. They are our most precious resource and we share responsibility for them, whether or not we are parents ourselves. It is the job of government, therefore, to make sure that families can meet the needs of children, and to step in where they cannot.
In most families, women are the mainstay on whom children and others depend - emotionally and often financially as well. So women must have the opportunity to be dependable, to be strong and self-reliant, able to care and provide, and to hold things together when the going gets tough. If women themselves are trapped in dependency, whether on state benefits or on a breadwinning husband, they cannot fill that role adequately.
But children need their fathers too - as much for emotional sustenance as for paying the bills. Men are caught in a different kind of trap, in which their traditional expectations conflict with life as they find it. They have a sense of failure if they cannot get paid work, and derive very little self-esteem from working unpaid at home. Those who are employed are exiled from their families, clocking up longer and longer hours to keep their place in the labour market.
If families are to be strengthened, we need to redefine the roles and responsibilities of men and women. Both should have a chance to be loving and attentive parents, involved in the day-to-day lives of their children, as well as to be breadwinners. Both need to earn a decent living in conditions which make it humanly possible to combine employment and parenthood: shorter hours, parental leave and time off when children are sick - jobs organised to suit the needs of families rather than the other way around. Flexible childcare services should be designed to support, not supplant, good parenting. And better schools with smaller classes should give children opportunities to learn parenting as well as academic skills.
Public services and tax and benefit rules could be geared towards these objectives. There is no shortage of evidence that committed parents make good employees, that long hours of overtime are rarely productive, that decent childcare is good for children and parents alike, and that education is the best hope we have of distributing advantage and risk more evenly across the population.
This is the kind of pro-family agenda that could provide a government - or government-in-waiting - with a strong moral leadership that is rational and appropriate for the age in which we live. Will either party have the courage or the clarity of purpose to go for it?
The writer is deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.