Mr Blair's Bastards

The Spectator, June 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Mr Blair's Bastards


The government's new target of halving teenage pregnancies in ten years was personally announced by the Prime Minister. This should alert us to the possibility that it is more about good intentions and presentation than serious policy. To announce a firm target of SO per cent, or any other exact number, in an issue over which the government will have at best only a tenuous influence, exemplifies the approach of the spin-doctor.

The growth in teenage pregnancies out of wedlock has been a cause of concern for many since the trend became marked in the Seventies. Labour then tended to minimise this concern, implying that it was reactionary. When the late Keith Joseph dared to dedicate a speech to the issue in 1974 he was vilified by journalists and `one-nation' Conservatives, and accused of anti-working-class tendencies. Politicians therefore drew the conclusion that the matter was safest left alone for the time being. In the meantime, the illegitimacy rate rose from its inter-war 5 per cent (which included everything from the fruits of one-night stands to stable relationships) to over 40 per cent and shows no sign of slowing down. Attempts to ascribe it to poverty stumble at the consideration that living standards have risen dramatically since the war.

While extended sex education may be intrinsically worthwhile, its contraceptive value must be in doubt in the light of the previous low level of unwanted pregnancies when sex education was a rarity. In many cases, the term `sex education' comes to be a euphemism for teaching contraception. This is more contentious, since in parts of the country the Labour party has a traditional base among Roman Catholics. Catholic Labour politicians have long controlled many local education authorities. Labour might resolve this contradiction, but, even so, the potential benefit is in doubt, since the vast increase in birth-control materials made available since 1945 has coincided with the greatest increase in illegitimate and teenage pregnancies in history.

Labour has been coy in the past about two aspects of the illegitimacy boom: first, its prevalence among the underclass, what Marxists called the lumpenproletariat and what Labour now knows by the euphemism `the excluded'; second, the way in which the benefits of the welfare state, designed to palliate the impact of unwanted pregnancies, may have encouraged them. When the Tory government proposed placing unmarried mothers in hostels rather than awarding them the luxury of a council flat because it seemed to reward fecklessness, Labour bitterly opposed it. …

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