Samantha Callan advises the Centre for Social Justice on family policy.
In his recent book on John F Kennedy, Boston professor Robert Dallek relates a conversation that took place between two political greats just before the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon election. Henry Kissinger said to Arthur Schlesinger, ‘We need someone who will take a big jump – not just improve on existing trends but produce a new frame of mind, a new national atmosphere. If Kennedy debates Nixon on who can best manage the status quo, he is lost. The issue is not one technical program or another, the issue is a new epoch.’ Drawing close to the election, it was clear that ‘much more than liberal enthusiasm was essential if Jack was going to beat Nixon’.
From my semi-detached viewpoint as the independent chair of both the family breakdown work in Breakthrough Britain, and ongoing family policy development at the Centre for Social Justice, I would say those two sentiments pretty much sum things up today. Nearly three years ago, long before the opinion polls had reached that longed for tipping point towards a potential Tory victory, I defied the usual categories by being a serious academic who was willing to work with the centre right on family issues. I grew used to the incredulity with which many, ostensibly non-aligned, colleagues met the news that I was researching family breakdown for IDS. ‘No matter how ineffectual current policy might be I could never help the Tories’ crystallizes the sentiment well. Only one senior family studies academic presciently bucked the trend. Her exact words were ‘You’ve got to do it, the Conservatives are the great white hope for family policy.’
Her reason for saying that? Current government has substituted vision with initiative overload. What might a visionary family policy look like? Its touchstone would be the aspiration of children, young people and adults for reliable love. When David Cameron said at Relate this year ‘I’m a marriage-freak because I’m a commitment freak’ he verbalized grounds for consensus the like of which have perhaps never been seen in the field. Research indicates that regardless of socioeconomic or indeed marital status people ideally want somewhere there for life. The prominent psychologist, Dr Janet Reibstein says that those who suggest serial monogamy might just be the new norm, and we should just expect relationships to be temporary and unfaithful are ‘basically ignorant of the insatiable, ongoing, time-honoured and even animal need to be in a happy, secure, erotic and deepening union with one other person. We may not be skilled at getting there: we obviously lack the secret to having them. But the evidence of partnership breakdown does not convince me that we do not strive for or want desperately to have lasting and wonderful relationships.’
The British Household Panel Study reveals that three quarters of men
and women are either planning, or expecting, to get married but the
latest British Social Attitudes Survey show that two thirds of the
population think there is little difference between being married and
living together. BSA authors conclude that this figure shows people’s
views on marriage are more liberal than they were 20 years ago.
Anastasia de Waal from Civitas disagrees with this simplistic assertion
pointing to the divergences between the two sets of figures which
‘emphasise the contemporary delineation between personal aspirations
and social norms. An ambivalence about other people and marriage, as
shown in the latest BSA, is often interpreted as a modern ambivalence
towards getting married oneself.’ The anthropologist Kathy Edin,
looking at attitudes towards marriage in the poorest town in the US
where having children outside marriage is the norm, found that marriage
is not despised but seen as the ‘prize at the end of the race’. You
seal the deal when you’re stable financially, when the relationship has
been proven to the nth degree – only problem is that the race takes far
longer to run at the bottom end of the social scale. Marriage is the
great neglected dimension of social injustice. People want it but have
widely diverging access to it for economic and cultural reasons. All
the indicators are that families formed on healthy, committed
relationships do better for children and adults. Marriage provides a
future orientation, a reason to sacrifice and invest when both of you
have explicitly and deliberately burned your bridges.
They have really got that in the US to the extent that, in research
funding terms, the colour of money is marriage. Social scientists are
being encouraged to incorporate questions about healthy marriage and
committed relationships in their research. Growing the relationship
skills base across the pond has become a priority for tackling poverty
as well as for increasing well-being. A two-day international
colloquium held last week at the House of Commons as part of the
follow-on work of Breakthrough Britain, drilled down into the question
of what works in Relationship Education. US researchers like Professor
Scott Stanley, who are heading up federal and state healthy
relationship programmes, described a strategic approach to family
breakdown which is non-coercive and non-ideological but draws on the
best research. Politicians are wary of the adult relationship, in part
because all of us feel more or less vulnerable on the subject. As the
Norwegian speaker said at the event, ‘parents used to have a lot of
children, now children have a lot of parents.’ This reality is neither
easy nor inevitable.
Scott Stanley sees the next decade as the ‘moon-shot for marriage’.
Kennedy told the American people in the early 60s ‘we’re going to the
moon’ and major new funds were made quickly available for the research
and programmes to reach the goal. What comes across when you talk to
these academics is their well-founded optimism that things can be
different, whereas skepticism dogs the imagination of many in the UK.
But as Stanley says ‘Many believe we do not have the knowledge to go
for a “marital moon shot”.
But that is not how many advances actually occur. Instead, a goal is set and scientists feel the pressure to go out and learn what is needed to reach the goal.’
If vision is going to guide the next government in family policy then
we urgently need a strategy to prevent breakdown and that means
supporting couples, not just children. The Children’s Commissioner
Professor Al Aynsley Green says that fear of family splits dominates
children’s concerns. Putting it more positively, people want to ‘come
together and stay together’, they want commitment. As I said at the
beginning, it’s not liberal enthusiasm we need but ‘a new frame of
mind, a new national atmosphere’ that says our deep-rooted social
problems are not just an inevitable part of the British landscape. We
can and must take the ‘big jumps’ necessary to tackle and fix a broken