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Laura Perrins: This Government's family policy is unConservative

Perrins LauraLaura Perrins is a former barrister and stay at home mother with two small children who campaigns for Mothers at Home Matter. 

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. 


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