Magazine article The Spectator

The Family Way

Magazine article The Spectator

The Family Way

Article excerpt

AS part of his strategy to make the Conservative party seem more 'inclusive', Mr Michael Portillo has said that `families come in all shapes and sizes'. Indeed. You should have seen mine. Mad aunts and wild uncles all over the place. I had a great-uncle who went to Galway to sell a heifer and disappeared off to Spain for a couple of years. He was a father of 11 -- not a great practitioner of family values, though a great upholder of them, in his own way.

Families come in many varieties, and no doubt God, or evolution, thought this variety useful for the human species. A gay colleague suggests that the evolutionary purpose of homosexuals is to provide spare uncles for the tribe, so that there can be a deposit of males who, not having children of their own, are available as mentors and benefactors. Noel Coward is an example of this: he had scores of godchildren.

The family is not something that can be, or should be, dominated by the state: its privacy must be respected. But neither is it something that can be ignored by a government, unless we are to return to a condition of no taxation, no social welfare, no pensions, no child benefit, no state education and no laws against child cruelty. The libertarians in the Conservative party are keen to emphasise personal freedom, which indeed we all desire. Some, like Mr Steve Norris, seem so anxious to preach what they practise that they advise the Conservative party to drop all mention of the emotionally charged phrase `family values'.

But this is a little like trying to abandon all mention of the changing weather, because family life is so knottily intertwined with the public polity. A skilled teacher in a state school can tell if a child is troubled because of difficulties in the family; an experienced teacher will say that if more than half the classroom have a family problem, from divorce to drug abuse, then it materially affects the education of the other half. There is a public responsibility to frame social policy in a way that tries to support stability in family life. If a tax and welfare policy encourages young parents to marry rather than to cohabit, it is manifestly better to have such a tax and welfare policy, since there are now scores of studies which show that marriage is more stable than cohabitation.

There will be an element of interfering with private choices in any such family policy, but there is an element of interfering with private choices in every decision the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes, and few would abolish his existence altogether. Only an 18th-century state could be neutral, in a practical sense, on family values.

That families come in all shapes and sizes is Mr Portillo's signal that there are many unconventional families, and that we should not be too fixated on the conformist suburban model of parents with 2.4 (now 1.9) children. The tidy suburban arrangement has certainly never appealed to me. The raising of my own children was carried out in a daily struggle against innate bohemianism. As the toys lay strewn around the floor and the children cried piteously for lost pieces of Lego, I pounded away on the typewriter for the Daily Mail, sometimes not entirely sober.

Yet the process of parenting gradually teaches the parent that the child is naturally a conservative of the most bourgeois conformist type. …

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