Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Happy Families?

The Government is trying to rebuild society on the basis of a Victorian card game. But only a minority of people now live in a family like Mrs Bun the Baker's wife, Mr Plod the policeman or Miss Dose the Doctor's daughter

The Government's flagship free schools and academies have to sign up to strict rules introduced by Education Secretary Michael Gove to teach children the ‘nature of marriage’ and its ‘importance’ for family life and bringing up children.

Religious and political campaigners against gay marriage claim that marriage is only for a man and a woman and that allowing gay marriage would undermine the bedrock of society and destroy family life.

But now there is research by think-tank the Centre for the Modern Family (funded by Scottish Widows) which shows that eight out of 10 people describe their family set‐up as not the traditional two married parents and two or more children. Just 16% of people define themselves as part of this kind of family that the Government thinks is under threat.

Although the Government and religious campaigners might see it as their mission to repair society and restore their concept of family values, they are increasingly out of step with the people they claim to represent who are more likely to describe single‐parent, same‐sex, or unmarried couples as ‘proper’ families. 57% of people no longer believe that a couple with children needs to be married to be a family. 77% of people believe that single parents can be a 'proper' family and 59% believe that same sex couples can be a family.

The public doesn’t just disagree with the Government's image of a family. People feel alienated by the emphasis put on a ‘traditional’ model of family life. 22% don’t believe their family is valued by society and 18% feel judged because of their family set‐up while 52% claim the Government does not take their family set‐up into account. It should also be borne in mind that whatever high ideals are promoted, not everyone gets to choose their circumstances, especially when times are hard.

NSS President Terry Sanderson said in The Telegraph: "For children brought up by unmarried parents or single parents being told that marriage is the only valid family arrangement will be totally contradictory to everything they know about the world. It is telling our children that their own family structure is somehow inferior."

However, both the Government and ‘traditionalist’ religious groups are very good at ignoring data that don’t suit their agenda and carrying on regardless. No matter how many statistics are thrown at them, it's water off a self-righteous duck's back. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith recently called on the Government to preserve the traditional family as 'the most vital part of society'. He made a clear distinction between marriage and cohabiting, claiming the 'relationships are not the same - and there are consequences for us all'.*

When did these ideal families exist apart from in a pack of Happy Families cards? Certainly not within living memory of many MPs, including David Cameron. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 1961 only 38% of families consisted of a married couple with two or more children.** That was before the swinging Sixties kicked in, before the Pill was widely available, before the Women's Movement gained momentum and before homosexuality was made legal. These are all things blamed for destroying the ideal family.

Just in passing - how many Tory MPs have had affairs or got divorced? The unscientific answer is - too many for them to be preaching at the rest of us. This is 'don't do as we do, do as we say' politics. Or maybe I just think that because I'm not married.

* Speech at the Janet Young Memorial Lecture 4 November 2011

** ONS Social Trends 40 (2010 edition) p 14.

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