Lib-Con family policy: Maggie meets Mary Poppins

The coalition’s family policy is an unholy marriage of Thatcher-style traditional moralism and New Labour-style therapeutic interventionism.

Jennie Bristow

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Having spent years criticising New Labour’s family policy, I was prepared to give the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government a chance. When Lib-Con ministers have talked about the problem of New Labour’s ‘nanny state’ and the need for individuals, families and communities to have more freedom in, and take more responsibility for, their own lives, this rhetoric has seemed like a refreshing counterpoint to a decade of the message ‘officials know best’.

But more than a year on from the General Election, the coalition government’s opposition to the ‘nanny state’ intervening in family life seems to be largely rhetorical. Many of the policies currently being developed have the goal of preserving the family; but the only way it is seen to be possible to do this is through more, not less, official scrutiny into the way adults conduct their intimate relationships with one another, and the way young children are raised.

In this regard, the coalition government’s family policy is beginning to look more New Labour than New Labour’s. The difference is that while the previous government wore its distrust of the family on its sleeve, today’s policymakers are using the language of ‘family values’ as a way of further undermining the family.

‘Family values’ under New Labour

There is a caricature of the Tory approach to family values in Britain, which is summed up in former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote, commonly paraphrased as: ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.’ This is seen to encapsulate the right-wing idea of the relationship between the family and the state: namely, that the families should take care of themselves, and in return would be left alone by ‘society’ to make their own decisions about how to conduct their everyday lives.

Of course, this idea of the autonomy of the family was always limited in reality. There was plenty of state intervention into the family during the Thatcher years, generally managed through the benefits system; and there was plenty of moralism, often of the traditional churchy, pro-marriage and anti-sex variety. But it became evident that attempts at traditional moralising no longer worked, as highlighted most clearly by the failure of John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign in 1992.

It was against this background that New Labour was elected, and began to implement its so-called ‘nanny state’ agenda, which took a technocratic approach to the problem of the family. Moral judgements about marriage, homosexuality and single mothers were junked in favour of ‘evidence-based’ policies indicating exactly which parenting practices were best, and an assertion that ‘Every Child Matters’ when it comes to officials becoming involved in child-rearing.

The publication of the consultation document Supporting Families in 1998 marked a watershed with its assertion that all families – not just those considered to be particularly problematic – needed (and indeed, wanted) official guidance in matters of everyday life. This heralded a new decade of explicit family policy, where families were no longer considered de facto to be the authority on raising their children. Policy documents came to discuss parents as ‘partners’ with the state, and parents were presented as being directly accountable to the authorities for what their children ate, how well they did at school, and whether they took part in ‘anti-social behaviour’ within the community.

New Labour’s technocratic approach was not always popular; and many of the strides made by the Conservative party in its election campaign of 2010 were made through attacking the excesses of New Labour’s bossiness and calling for greater flexibility and freedom for people to make choices about their everyday life. But the ‘nanny state’ badge always missed what was most significant about New Labour’s approach to parenting and family life. Its trajectory was not so much authoritarian as therapeutic.

Political rhetoric used the language of ‘advice’ and ‘support’ and officials took care not to privilege any particular family ‘style’ over another – married or cohabiting, gay or straight, single parents or couples, rich or poor, none of this mattered to policymakers so long as all parents stuck to a particular formula for raising their children and accepted that they should be open to ‘advice’ and ‘support’ from official sources. In this respect, the relationship between the state and the family underwent a profound shift.

The family was no longer conceived of as the bedrock of society, which could be left to its own devices except in extreme circumstances, where the state would have to step in. Rather, it was reconfigured as an institution in which breakdown and dysfunction were endemic, and the state was considered to need to play a directly supporting role for each and every family unit. Parents were looked upon less as responsible adults than as trainee carers, who needed educating about child-rearing before they could be let loose on the next generation.

It would be tempting to see some of the current government’s rhetoric about the importance of the family and the problem of the nanny state as a demand to ‘go back’ to the days when families were accorded the privacy and responsibility to raise their children as they saw fit. But just as New Labour was not Old Labour, the New Tories are not closet Thatcherites merely biding their time to let the ‘nasty party’ off the leash.

The New Tories, with their Lib Dem sidekicks, are social managers in search of an intellectual strategy. Their management style borrows heavily from the technocratic style of New Labour, and their ideas – at least regarding the family – seem to be most heavily influenced by a strand of thought branded as ‘compassionate conservatism’. This combines the therapeutic ethos of New Labour with more socially conservative values, and the upshot will be yet more fiddling with the family.

‘Breakdown Britain’ and the Centre for Social Justice

Arguably the most important figure in the creation of government family policy is Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative member of parliament for Chingford and Woodford Green. Duncan Smith was leader of the Conservative Party between 2001 and 2003, when he resigned after he failed to win a vote of confidence from his fellow MPs. He then set up the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), ‘an independent think tank committed to tackling poverty and social breakdown’, which he chaired until the 2010 General Election, when he was appointed secretary of state for work and pensions.

Duncan Smith will sit on the new Childhood and Families Taskforce, reportedly to be chaired by prime minister David Cameron and also attended by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, children’s minister Sarah Teather, science and universities minister David Willetts, health minister Anne Milton, and economic secretary to the Treasury Justine Greening.

The Centre for Social Justice grabbed the attention of politicians under New Labour, and has for a few years been a relatively influential voice in policy debates about the family, poverty and crime. It is connected to senior Tories – William Hague, the foreign secretary, is on the advisory council – but also contains some influential figures from the Labour Party, including the former home secretary David Blunkett, and Frank Field, who was appointed as the coalition government’s ‘poverty tsar’ and has been central to pushing for ‘early intervention’ by the state into child-rearing, in order to prevent ‘poor children from becoming poor adults’.

And the CSJ has been a prolific publisher of reports, which, taken together, provide a coherence that appears to be lacking in other areas of policymaking. Breakdown Britain, arguably its most influential report, was published in 2006 and highlighted five ‘pathways to poverty’: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness and addiction. One year later, it published Breakthrough Britain, a six-volume report that made 188 policy recommendations to the Conservative Party. The first volume was titled Family Breakdown, and built on the 2006 report Fractured Families, both of which were produced by working groups chaired by research consultant Dr Samantha Callan.

Fractured Families painted a grim picture of the ‘state of the nation’. ‘[A]dults and children today are increasingly faced with the challenge of dysfunctional, fractured, or fatherless families’, it asserts, before presenting an ‘inclusive use of the term “family breakdown”… which can be summed up in three key words: dissolution, dysfunction and “dad-lessness”’. The report rejected ‘the comfortable mantra that policy can or should be wholly morally neutral’, and states the need for policy to support and encourage ‘marriage and committed relationships’. The document also lays out the importance of policy engaging with both ‘family structure and family process’: that is, promoting marriage over cohabitation, but also engaging with ‘conflict management within families’ as a ‘key consideration for public policy’.

The Breakthrough Britain report built on this diagnosis to make specific policy proposals. Family structure would be dealt with through recognising marriage through the tax system: an idea that the coalition government has already floated, with limited success. ‘Preventative measures’ against family breakdown would be introduced, which included ‘a national relationship and parenting education “invitation” scheme for couples and parents at key life stages’, the creation of a ‘Marriage and Relationships Institute (MRI)’, and the promotion of ‘relationship education in schools’.

The report also noted the results of a YouGov poll which found that ‘80 per cent agreed that it is better for preschool children to be looked after by a parent at home rather than by a childminder or day nursery’, with only 29 per cent agreeing that ‘we should be trying to encourage mothers to go back to work and contribute to the economy, rather than making it easier to stay at home’. To that end, the report proposed slashing state funding for childcare and ‘freeing up’ Children’s Centres from childcare provision in order ‘to provide more family support’. The policies outlined in Breakthrough Britain ‘pay particular attention to the needs of our youngest citizens, those in the first three years of life where the nurture of their parents is of particular importance’.

What is clear from these documents is that this is not a strategy designed to reduce official intervention into the family: indeed, initiatives such as the ‘Marriage and Relationship Institute’ make New Labour’s nanny state look positively laid back. But the form of intervention differs from New Labour policy, in three interesting ways.

First, it intends to move away from the ‘politically “safe” emphasis on the parent-child relationship’ to engage more directly with ‘the quality of their parents’ relationship, a crucial dimension of child wellbeing’. This will be done through relationships education and counselling, including – as yet another document, Every Family Matters, explains – ‘strong government encouragement of couples getting married to take part in high-quality, standardised and accredited pre-marriage preparation, delivered in an accessible fashion’.

In terms of where the appropriate boundaries for state intervention into the family are considered to lie, this marks a step on from the previous government’s attempt to regulate the parent-child relationship more closely. In the CSJ’s view, adults’ relationships with each other are to be considered a legitimate target for more intimate scrutiny. Marriage is not lauded in the classical sense, as an institution that encourages individuals to take responsibility for each other and their children; it is promoted as a better mechanism for ensuring that people are open to official messages, in the form of ‘pre-marriage preparation’ and relationship counselling offered at key ‘life stages’.

The combination of the promotion of traditional family forms – marriage – alongside the more recently accepted mantra that couples need ‘support’ shows how far the terrain has shifted from the traditional family values agenda. This proscribed the form in which people should live their private lives (‘family structure’), but it did so on the basis that how they conducted their relationships within that sphere (‘family process’) was largely up to them. Thus the autonomy and privacy of the family was, to some degree, protected, and people were accorded the right and responsibility to make their own choices.

The new family-values agenda promoted by the Centre for Social Justice brings together the most proscriptive elements of traditional moralism and New Labour-style therapeutic interventionism. People are cajoled into marriage, but instructed before and throughout their married lives about how they should conduct their relationships with one another. Mothers are to be encouraged out of the labour force, as childcare provision is whittled away; but their time spent at home with preschool-aged children will be subjected to increasing scrutiny because of the concern that children’s brains can be warped by inadequate care, making them into ‘poor adults’.

The second way in which the CSJ’s approach to family policy differs from that of New Labour is in its diagnosis of the ills that apparently afflict modern society. ‘Since the 1960s there has been a constant flow of primary and secondary legislation affecting divorce, sexual freedom, abortion rights, homosexual lifestyles, tax and benefits and more’, notes the Fractured Families report, buried in an appendix on page 147. ‘In combination these laws have undermined the value of marriage as an institution, mainly by elevating the value of other relationship structures now generally considered to lack the longevity and strength that marriage brings to the family unit.’

The report’s appendix laments the ‘de-stigmatisation of abortion’ brought about by the Abortion Act 1967, and states that ‘the availability of contraceptives to unmarried people under the Family Planning Act 1967 further encouraged premarital and extramarital sexual activity’.

What is most striking about this distaste for sexual freedom is how old-fashioned it seems – which is presumably why it appears in an appendix, rather than the main body of the report. But it is interesting as it indicates the profound social conservatism of many of the ‘New Tories’, despite their attempts to use language more accepted in the modern world and to develop policies that are pragmatically suited to the times.

In this view, the problem with the modern world lies with all the personal freedoms that have been gained over the past 50 years. Because society has ‘broken down’, and families are ‘dysfunctional, fractured or fatherless’, social policy cannot simply turn the clock back and expect people to act responsibly; rather, it has to intervene more aggressively to get them to make the right choices.

This bleak vision of modern family life inverts reality. The problem is not the degree of sexual freedom and personal choice encouraged by the ‘permissive’ legislation of the 1960s, but society’s inability to deliver on the promise of these new freedoms. So New Labour could talk the politically-correct talk about the acceptability of ‘diverse’ family forms, while finding ever-more bureaucratic ways of regulating intimate relationships. The compassionate conservative philosophy does the same thing, while junking even a rhetorical commitment to the positive aspects of reproductive choice.

If not the nanny state, then what?

The third element of Tory family policy that seems distinct from New Labour is the degree to which it positively sees the state as a solution to our dissolute world. One of the defining features of the coalition government’s outlook is its desire to move society away from its dependency on the welfare state and to create instead something called the ‘Big Society’. This concept has been roundly mocked in the press, because of its noticeable lack of coherence; and indeed the jury remains out as to what ‘Cameron’s BS’ is actually likely to mean it practice. But the CSJ’s family policy trajectory provides a bit more of a clue about how policymakers’ ambivalence about the state is playing itself out.

On 23 May, Cameron gave a speech that has been widely dubbed his ‘fourth relaunch’ of the Big Society, emphasising ‘the importance of strong families, communities and relationships’, and announcing plans for more than £40million in additional support for the voluntary sector. ‘The building of a bigger, stronger society will not be done by government but by citizens’, said Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. ‘However, it will not emerge overnight and government has to play a role in supporting it.’

The essence of the Big Society agenda is that it emphasises the problem of society’s reliance on the state and argues instead for people to rely on their families and communities. But because such families and communities are considered so hopelessly broken, the state will work through institutions of the voluntary sector, otherwise known as the Third Sector, to reshape civil society in a more responsible direction.

So the 2006 CSJ report Breakdown Britain begins with a discussion of ‘the welfare society’, as a counterpoint to the welfare state. ‘At the heart of the welfare society is the family’, it notes – but ‘an integral and vital part of the welfare society is the voluntary and community sector’, which can ‘offer many damaged people a second chance and operate in a people-centred way that statutory agencies cannot or will not emulate’.

At one level, it is hard to see the problem with lauding the role of communities and the voluntary sector. It is certainly arguable that the tendency, over the past couple of decades, to bring more and more informal aspects of society under the control of the state has weakened people’s ability to rely upon each other or to organise things themselves for the sake of their communities.

But the philosophy behind the ‘welfare society’ is that people need more, not less, official nudging in matters of their everyday lives and relationships. The practical objective of the Big Society is that the Third Sector gains more, not less, support from the state. Put these two objectives together and you have a situation where people are subject to more interference, by agencies that are, if anything, less democratically accountable than the nanny state we know and hate.

These may be church-led organisations, of the kind finding themselves with an increasing voice in policy forums; it may be charities such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which have been built up over several years to act as a semi-official arm of the child protection industry.

Either way, this strategy for further professionalising the Third Sector has nothing to do with the idea that voluntary organisations should simply be left to get on with things. And whoever ends up being charged with providing marriage guidance counselling or ‘early intervention’, it seems pretty clear that for families, engaging with these services is unlikely to be a matter of choice.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

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