When was Broken Britain intact?

Fürstenfeld, Austria - January 07, 2006image by cym at home shared via a creative commons license.

Once again the Tories are out in force applying gaffa tape and No Nails to the shards of our broken country. This time they are offering tax breaks to shore up shaky marriages, and to prevent marriage becoming the scourge preserve of the middle-classes. The Tory rhetoric runs thus: Britain is broken! Societal values have been degraded! We need a return to traditional family values! The sanctity of the family unit is something often championed as the route to fixing our so-called ‘broken’ nation. The idea of family being at the heart of society is certainly tenacious – and harks back to nostalgic ideals that belong the Victorian age. There you will find the Angel in the House – the woman as central to the family – the hearth, submissive, caring, doting, safe. Is this the ‘intact’ time that the Tories are harking back to? Perhaps the 50s, where children born out of wedlock were forcibly adopted, when women were beaten with impunity and expected to cook, clean care for children whilst quite often also having a job? Maybe the 1970s, where women still weren’t allowed to open a bank account without their father or husband’s permission? Or perhaps that of up to 1991, where spousal rape was not only commonplace (the majority of rapes are still committed by partners), but legal?

Contrary to the politicians’ rhetoric, the structure of the family is far less important than the quality of its relationships, as a recent Gingerbread report demonstrates. Source

I’m not going to argue that family is not important, it certainly is, along with our education and peers, our family is one of the key influences that shape our lives. What I certainly will argue is that the Tory definition of ‘family’ is both outdated and damaging, especially when they use tax incentives to try and engineer it.

And yet those good old Tory brains carry on ticking:

So only the middle classes are getting married – and they’re all quite happy aren’t they? I know! Let’s make those troublesome working class marry, and then they’ll  be happy too!

Marriage is a symptom, rather than a cause of social stability. Simply putting incentives in place to bribe quite unhappy people into staying together ‘for the sake of their children’ isn’t going to magically create social stability. That kind of logic is cargo-cultism, and it’s lazy, and it’s stupid, and it won’t work. Penny Red

There’s also some lovely science to support Penny Red’s assertion, too:

Professor Kelly Musick and Dr Ann Meier of Cornell University have carried out a study of children whose parents stay together for the sake of the kids. […] exactly the kind of people who would be glued back together by Cameron’s policies […] It turns out their children do worse than any other group – including those of divorcees or single mums. Source

We don’t need to try and rebuild a version of the perfect family that never existed, or that isn’t useful or relevant. We don’t need these units which mould around heteronormative visions of economically dis-empowered women perfecting their ‘recession chic’, which keep unhappy and abusive relationships upheld, and men apart from the formative years and full lives of their children. We need a serious revision of what constitutes a ‘family’, and the responsibilities that go along with being a part of one.

I am part of what is (leadingly, painfully) termed a ‘broken’ family. My parents are divorced. I wouldn’t change that for the world. I love my mum and dad, and part of that love is wanting to see them as happy as they could be. They are better, wholler people how they are now, than they were for years when together.

We’re told women should have children young, and that this is incompatible with a career and education. Women of childbearing age are routinely discriminated against and new fathers have only very recently started moving towards anything nearing decent paternity leave. We’re told the ‘best’ environment for children is two married, heterosexual people, one of whom stays at home (or who should feel mighty guilty for not doing so).

This conception of family is inaccurate and damaging for all concerned.

So how about we reissue the word ‘family’ to mean anyone who loves you? How about we consider childcare as something that is done by women, men, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Parenting is open source, there is no ‘natural’ knowledge, new mothers can feel so alone, they rarely speak to adults, their work and social lives have been removed, it’s scary. If family was wide, sprawling, even if a father wasn’t available there would be so many role models available. Too many relationships break down because the way parental leave is structured ostracises the working parent from the outset.

Let’s not talk about the ‘break down’ of family through marriage, if divorce was only concerned with the end of love and not a failure – if people separating wasn’t (still) a social taboo – it would hurt all concerned a lot less. If women could study, or work, as well as care for a child with the help of a social network (family) there would be no ‘ticking clock’ to service, and if men were able – indeed expected – to take an equal share in home-running and childcare, there would be far less discrimination against parents in the workplace.

Isn’t it a strength that we accept marriages fail, not because of wickedness or moral laxity, but because of ordinary human incompatibility? Yes, it brings some problems – but [the aforequoted] study underlines that they are far less than the problems of imprisoning people in dead marriages, and lecturing them it’s for their own moral health. Source

Leaving aside all of the misogynistic baggage inherent in the marriage state, very few relationships last a lifetime, but your family does. Family is what we should be protecting, not marriage, but it’s families, poor families, that these pro-marriage tax breaks will damage most.

Cameron’s policies would simply shift more power and money towards those who already have it. The Married Couples Allowance would be a big redistribution of wealth to people who don’t need it, paid for by slashing help to the poorest people who really do – from Tax Credits to SureStart to the Educational Maintenance Allowance. And all for a dysfunctional outcome. Source

Iceland was recent placed first in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index rankings. They are the happiest, healthiest, wealthiest and best educated people in the world. They also have the highest birth rate in Europe, the highest divorce rate and the highest percentage of women working outside the home (Source).

‘Patchwork families are a tradition here […] It is common for women to have kids with more than one man. But all are family together.’ Source

Now there’s a phrase, ‘patchwork’ – different in aspect, but together bound. I like that.

So be brave, politicians, legislate in that direction. Equalise laws, reform marriage and civil partnerships, incentivise parental leave for both employer and employee. Support social housing and sure start programs. Work towards improving on how things are, not towards how you fantasise that they used to be.

And have a lovely Christmas with your patchwork family.

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8 Responses to “When was Broken Britain intact?”

  1. Thomas Byrne December 24, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    I would rather our tax schemes kept couples together rather than drove them apart. The prospect of some extra money each year isnt going to keep a truely rotten marriage going, but that few grand not being there could well cause rifts over finances or push couples into splitting up so that they are better off. At the end of the day council estates are full of fatherless/motherless homes because their benefits or tax allowances will drop if they keep a relationship going for more than five minutes. Perhaps it’s about time we try a different tack that actually keeps the family unit together.

    Sadly though IDS’s current plans don’t do that.


  2. Hannah Nicklin December 24, 2009 at 11:29 am #

    Thanks for commenting Thomas, yours is a good post but I think you underestimate the importance of a ‘few grand’ to people who only earn a few a year – this will certainly be a substantial amount to a great deal of people.

    I would much rather our tax schemes kept people happy, healthy, housed and educated, and that relationships were the province of the people concerned. Couples being together does not have to mean ‘married’ and it is not always desirable that they should be. We certainly need to remove the pressures that drive them apart, however, and I’d consider that to be appalling imbalances in parental leave, workplace rights, childcare etc.

    The ‘family unit’ as envisioned by the family fetishists of the Tories and the right wing press is outdated, never was. We need to work for family cohesion, but first we need to reform what we mean by ‘family’. Deal in now, not never-was.

    Thanks, and merry Christmas!

  3. Alexander Walsh December 24, 2009 at 11:58 am #

    Well that’s good. I’ve been getting tired of the bad science and statistics that say that being a single parent is damaging to children. It must put horrible pressure and guilt on people who need to separate.

  4. tigershungry October 6, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    Marriage tax incentives make me very angry. Same as yourself my parents were much better off separate and the whole family suffered during the latter years of their marriage, which in turn affected both mine and my sisters education at a crucial age. If anything we would all have been better off had their been support and help to aid a separation and single parenting.

    I’m not saying my situation is by any means true for all but thinking that tax based incentives should ever be a reason to get married or stay married is truly baffling- nor the concept that we are ‘all’ better off locking ourselves into one person from the age of 30 up.

    Exactly as you say I’d much rather the government accepted the myriad variations of what constitutes a family and started support from here.

  5. placid October 6, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    Talk about a policy that misses the point: people don’t break up because they dont have the money to be together. There’s simply no connection as to why paying people to stay married would make them happier – it just makes no sense, if people split up its because they’re unhappy together, why try an make them stay together.

    Crucially, its not even a question of what you think of marriage as an act, what kind of life or community you think is better or worse, whats good or bad for children growing up (hint – as long as you’re spending more on weapons to kill people than on education to improve them, everything else is pretty irrelevant).

    Its a simple fact that if you want people to be happier, marriage tax breaks is just not a cause related to that effect. It only makes sense if you want to force people into a way of life they spent that last 100 years freeing themselves from precisely because it made them unhappy.

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  1. Hackreads – some of the stories and posts I’ve been reading today « Grace Fletcher-Hackwood - January 7, 2010

    […] the Tories on marriage and it always goes to a 1500-word rant, so I shall spare you. Instead, read this by Hannah Nicklin – I particularly love PennyRed’s quote describing the Tory obsession […]

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