Samantha Callan: Could the Conservatives be the ‘Great White Hope’ for Family Policy?
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 society.