From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The right wing is pursuing a new moral crusade. John Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign is aimed at delivering little, but making a great many people who should be on the receiving end of non-existent benefits feel even more guilty.
Millions of people are struggling to bring up children on low wages or even lower social security payments. These children are faced with a deteriorating education system and diminishing prospects of a job when they leave school. The chances of their lives being an improvement on their parents’ have become more and more remote.
Yet the government has launched a concerted campaign to blame them for the problems of society. We are told that the large number of one parent families (now at 1.3 million or one in five of all families) has led to declining moral standards, a greater crime rate, more truancy from school and a weakening of the whole fabric of society.
This, so John Major claims, is very different from the world of the 1950s when most people led decent lives. Former Thatcherite right hand man Lord Tebbit has put a more sinister view of his own ‘basic values’. Britain was a paradise, according to him, until the break up of Britain’s ‘Christian-Judaean’ tradition, as well as the break up of the family. He cites the problem as a ‘substantial and growing Muslim minority’ which has not been integrated into British society.
Home Secretary Michael Howard has explained the decline of ‘family values’ as stemming from the liberal values of the 1960s, which broke down respect for father figures. These values in turn were created as a result of mobilisation for the Second World War, when heads of families had to go off to fight and so could not exert the required discipline.
Howard claims that ‘the longer the same father had been part of the child’s life, and the more effectively the father has taken part in that life of the family, the better the results for the child.’ He cites as evidence three studies, none of which are at all conclusive. One study, by Eileen Crellin, found that illegitimate children born in 1958 were disadvantaged in infant mortality, birth weight and in reading ability.
But there are two major flaws. It does not take into account other social factors which might cause such disadvantages; and it is a study from a period where the number of one parent families was tiny compared with now. Today one in four single parents are owner occupiers, and are by no means all poor or dependent on benefits.
Another major study leaned on by the Tories was based on 264 men and women born in Newcastle in 1947, which connects illegitimacy and crime. Again this narrowly based study did not take into account other factors which might lead to crime.
Even the government’s own advisers reject such evidence as conclusive. A recent leaked cabinet paper argued:
‘It does not appear that the fact of lone parenthood is in itself associated with crime; it is the quality of care within the family which counts, not whether it is given by one parent or two. But the children of lone parents are more likely to be brought up in poor families, and this appears to be associated with low educational attainment and delinquency’.
There is, of course, an alternative explanation for what is occurring. During the 1950s, British capitalism grew – like everywhere else – on an unprecedented scale. Welfare benefits, an improving health and education service, were available to all. Unemployment dropped to negligible levels, and crime rates were low.
Britain has experienced three major recessions since then. The government and employers have spent the last 15 years desperately cutting back the costs of welfare and provoking more and more discontent as they do so. The talk of the new morality is an attempt to push the costs of welfare further onto the individual family and away from the capitalist state. At the same time, its aim is to prevent those who feel discontented from doing anything about it.
The problem for the Tories is that British society has changed irrevocably and for the better since the 1950s. People who would have accepted being treated as outcasts because they had a child outside marriage are no longer prepared to do so. Many women choose to live on their own and to have children on their own, and today there is very little stigma attached to this attitude.
Even John Major has begun to recognise that his constant attacks on single parents are counter productive. He has told his ministers to lay off, for fear of alienating potential supporters. He may also feel that constant debate about single parents living on benefits raises a couple of awkward and fairly fundamental questions: why are women’s wages so low that they are virtually as well off on the appalling level of benefits than they are in work? And why is the child care provision in Britain one of the worst in Europe?
An encouraging sign of recent months is that despite the government’s disgusting scapegoating of single parents, most of the women under attack are not prepared to submit to this kind of discrimination. One of the legacies of the 1960s is a generation of women who refuse to be regarded as second class citizens, and who are willing to fight to ensure a degree of equality.
Last updated: 1 March 2017