I have argued previously how the Conservative Party has failed to deliver on
its promise to be the most family-friendly Government Britain has ever had.
Before the election they talked the talk but since then they have failed to
walk the walk. Why? Why is it that the Conservatives seem so adrift as to
what the average British family wants – namely a good work life/balance, more
time to spend together and a choice for a mother to stay at home to nurture
their children, at least when they are young?
Current policy treats the economy as a trump card; if a policy can improve
GDP, it has been approved despite its wider social implications. What about the
family and the Big Society? Remember the Big Society, where neighbour would
look in on neighbour and volunteer groups would make up for the cuts to public
services? This seems to have vanished down the rabbit hole completely. To have
a Big Society, first you need a small society; and the smallest unit of society
has, for centuries, been the family. The Conservative Party is muddled as to
what the family wants because it has no idea what it stands for.
Kay Hymowitz, the American social commentator, has discussed the early American
family vividly, calling it the ‘republican marriage’ – I will refer to it as
the American family. When Europeans fled the Old World to settle in the New
World life was tough on the frontm and the ‘frontier family’ became a byword for
‘rugged and indomitable self-sufficiency.’
Hymowitz explains that ‘republican marriage provided the edifice in which couples
would care for and socialize their children to meet the demands of the new
political order. If republican marriage celebrated self-government, it also has
to pass its principles to the young; it was supposed to perpetuate as well as
embody the habits of freedom.’ The American family was not a slave to the new
Republic, but its fortunes became interdependent with it. In fact, the American
family helped the Republic to grow and flourish, and an attack on the family was
an attack on the Republic itself.
So American child-rearing became not ‘children should be seen and not heard’
but more child centred. American parents did not spoil the child (usually) but
they (not the State) were responsible for creating ‘independent, industrious,
and resourceful future citizens.’ There is no doubting the economic
success the Republic enjoyed over the next two centuries. Further, many
commentators believe the United States are still best placed to recover from
the great Recession. I believe this is because the United States, since its
foundation, has recognised the American family as a unit, and children are
central to this unit. It is not an accident that since 1948 taxation policy in
the United States treats the family as whole. Children are not seen as an
annoying extra that must be cared for by someone so both parents can work; they
are central to the whole American project.
What does the British family stand for? We know what it looks like and
despite its complexities and diversities we know it when we see it: there are
parents and their children. The family is a team. The parents are co-dependent
on each other and together nurture their children. If this is how the British
family appears then what does it stand for? Does it stand for freedom and
self-determination? Does it promote these values for the common good, or is it
merely a cog in the machine of the State?
The UK system of individual taxation suggests that the family is simply a
group of separate individuals and as a consequence the children are an
inconvenient addition that must be cared for while both parents work. This is
in contrast to 13 OECD countries that allow or require spouses to file a joint
tax return. Individual taxation implies that mothers and fathers are
merely GDP contributors, not groomers of the next generation. This atomisation
of the family is not only myopic and counter-productive in the long run but it
is totally unConservative.
The Conservative Party needs to think long and
hard about what the family stands for. I believe that the family is the most
important unit in society. When it works well, it passes on the whole cultural
store to the next generation and the British family, in all its diversity,
could stand for self-determination, responsibility and compassion. Parents
should be treated and taxed as a team. Childcare costs should be measured
against joint income and not just the mothers; they are the children of the
family after all. The British family stands for something, and the Government
should not separate out its constituent pieces and use them as a cog in the
State machine. It is a unit in and of itself – and the whole is greater than the
sum of its parts.