Thatcher lit the torch for family values: Former PM's legacy of concern for traditional life is alive, Donald Macintyre finds

Donald Macintyre
Sunday 20 September 2015 20:28

IN A SHORT but vivid section of her memoirs, Baroness Thatcher describes how she became increasingly convinced during her last years in office that 'though there were crucially important limits to what politicians can do in this area', the Government 'could only get to the roots of crime and much else besides by concentrating on strengthening the traditional family'.

Giving a familiar impression of a constant power struggle within the Cabinet, she describes how she established as policy the Child Support Agency 'against considerable opposition from Tony Newton, the Social Security Secretary and from the Lord Chancellor's Department'. She said she opposed the Law Commission's recommendations to take fault out of divorces. And she alludes to the 'great pressure which I had to fight hard to resist' to provide tax relief or subsidies for child care.

Lady Thatcher deals magisterially with the problems posed by working mothers. To subsidise mothers to go out to work would have swung the emphasis undesirably towards discouraging them to stay at home to look after their children. It was possible - 'as I had' - to bring up a family while working 'as long as one was willing to make a great effort to organise one's time properly and with some extra help'. But it would not have been fair to mothers who chose to stay at home to subsidise double-income couples.

Her account is illuminating in two ways. First it shows that while she has gone, her legacy of concern over 'family values', so pronounced at the Tory party conference in Blackpool this year, is alive and well. That is not to say that some right-wingers in the Cabinet like John Redwood and Michael Howard, who have taken up the theme of single mothers, are simply carrying her torch. But, reading her views on family policy, you can understand more clearly why she congratulated the party and John Major for returning to the fold and pledging 'to get back to basics'.

The Law Commission's proposals on divorce, to take one example, might have survived her demise. But they have now been so severely modified that - to use her words - 'if all the remaining culpability was removed from marital desertion, divorce would be that much more common'. Equally, there has so far been no big initiative to use the tax system to encourage child care - even though it is one of the possible methods of decreasing lone mothers' dependence on the state suggested by officials in the document leaked to the Labour MP, Hilary Armstrong. Finally, it is clear from the passage that she was as preoccupied with single mothers as are several members of the present Cabinet.

The second and more important insight provided by the Thatcher passage, however, is the dilemmas that family policy pose for the Tory party. The first is how far intervention in personal morality can be squared with an ideology committed to reducing the influence of the state. On the one hand Lady Thatcher admits that 'the wider influences of the media, schools and above all the churches are more powerful than anything the Government can do'. On the other she claims: 'The state had done so much harm that the opportunity to some remedial work was not to be missed.'

Monday's leak, moreover, demonstrates that the dilemmas go beyond the philosophical. At the most extreme, the document's point that lowering the age of consent would make it easier to give contraceptive advice to teenage girls. That, as Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, acknowledged was a political non-starter.

There is also the question of how to use the tax and benefit system to reduce the number of single mothers. If benefits are cut, the children and mothers suffer. If incentives are provided for single mothers to go to work, once their children are three years old, it cuts across the ideal of many Tories that women should stay at home at least until their children are five. Solutions may cost money in the short term. Yet those highlighting the problem are also those keenest on reducing public expenditure and state dependence.

Finally, even the analysis of ministers is challenged in some important respects - including their assumption that girls become pregnant to get a council flat. It is an intellectually messy subject, not easily brought within the constraints of party politics.

(Photograph omitted)

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