When New Labour came to power in 1997, a battle royal took place within its ranks over the issue of the family.
In one camp was Tony Blair, who understood that family breakdown was the hole at the heart of British society and who wanted to strengthen the two-parent family. Ranged against him was just about everyone else, all of whom thought that every form of relationship should be afforded equal status. The Prime Minister lost this argument hands-down.
The result was the lame formula subsequently adopted by his Government that it supported marriage and every other type of â€˜familyâ€™, too â€” a transparently verbal camouflage for a relationship free-for-all.
Now, that camouflage has finally been thrown aside. An all-out attack on marriage and the two-parent family by the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, has laid bare the true Labour agenda.
Twice-married Mr Johnson, who was himself raised by his sister after his father walked out and his mother died, sneered at the image of mothers in â€˜frilly pinniesâ€™ and fathers dressed in shirt and tie for Sunday lunch during the Fifties as a damaging
That era, he said, concealed discrimination against lone parents and children born outside marriage. Marriage could provide stability, but it wasnâ€™t for everyone. The focus should not be on marriage, but on the welfare of the child and the quality of the upbringing.
What an astounding display of ignorance, prejudice and muddled thinking â€” and from an Education Secretary who has a duty to safeguard childrenâ€™s interests, what gross irresponsibility.
Ridiculing marriage as a Fifties caricature is a cheap and dishonest substitute for argument. The fact is that far from being outdated or confined to that period, marriage remains the bedrock institution which holds a society together.
For all its frailties, marriage is still the best way of ensuring that a childâ€™s parents stay together for the duration of its upbringing. Other relationships break down much faster, and their encouragement has led directly to our horrifying epidemic of mass fatherlessness.
The result has been such a catastrophic failure in parenting, particularly among the poor, that the Government is now assuming the role of surrogate state parent, with an oppressively detailed and prescriptive strategy for telling parents how to bring up their children.
Yesterday, the Governmentâ€™s â€˜respect czarâ€™ Louise Casey â€” who previously landed in hot water for bizarrely praising binge drinking â€” claimed parenting was now a â€˜mysteryâ€™ that lay beyond the scope of both the middle classes and the poor.
Thus, the Government had to respond to this â€˜cry for helpâ€™ â€” by forcing some parents on to state parenting courses so that mothers with children by multiple partners could be taught the basics of controlling their offspring.
Such arrogance! Having torn up all the rules on marriage, the state then claims that it is best placed to bring up the unfortunate children who are the result of the collapse of this institution.
Thus, the state takes draconian control of our lives, parents are radically disempowered, freedom is grossly undermined â€” and the social catastrophe of family disintegration still continues apace.
Parenting is not a â€˜mysteryâ€™ â€” we know beyond a shadow of doubt that, by and large, being brought up by their own mother and father is the best guarantee that children will be raised healthily and happily.
Of course it doesnâ€™t always work out like that. Of course there are lone parent households who do a magnificent job in raising secure and thriving children, but increasingly there are households where a man plays no role whatsoever.
Indeed, it emerged this week that in one in five cases examined by the Child Support Agency (CSA), no father was registered on the childâ€™s birth certificate. And too often the absence of a parent is directly linked to the crime, educational underachievement, drug and drink abuse, mental and physical ill health and other disadvantages that now blight so many of our childrenâ€™s lives and cause so much damage to our society.
The reason our society once revered marriage was because everyone knew it was the fundamental institution that kept the national show on the road. Take an axe to marriage and society itself cracks wide open.
That is what has happened. There are now areas in our country where committed fatherhood is almost entirely unknown and where children are simply abandoned to emotional chaos and blighted life chances.
The reason for focusing upon marriage, as Mr Johnson so signally fails to grasp, is precisely because that is the best way of focusing upon the welfare of the child and the quality of its upbringing.
Yes, the stigma that was once attached to unmarried mothers and children from broken homes was often cruel. But what Mr Johnson decries as prejudice was, in fact, societyâ€™s way of protecting the most vulnerable and enforcing rules of behaviour that upheld the sense of commitment and duty to others that binds us together as a civilised society.
Mr Johnson appears to think the worst thing that can happen is treating people differently and hurting their feelings by criticising their behaviour. But treating everyone the same regardless of how badly they behave is a totally amoral position. It licenses people to behave badly and creates victims out of betrayed spouses or children to whom lasting damage is done.
Since Mr Blair was first elected â€” and found himself facing within Labourâ€™s ranks an assortment of radical feminist man-haters, serial adulterers, cohabiting partners who thought marriage was irrelevant and gays â€” this Governmentâ€™s whole family agenda has been about putting the desires of irresponsible adults first and then crying crocodile tears over the human tragedies left in its wake.
It has systematically undermined marriage by loading the financial dice heavily against married couples and in favour of lone parents. By doing so, it put a rocket motor under the phenomenon of mass fatherlessness. The result is that more than one in every four babies is now born out of wedlock â€” a terrifying indicator of social breakdown for which the taxpayer has actually been paying through the nose.
In the past eight years, the benefits bill for lone parents has, according to maverick Labour MP Frank Field, rung up an astounding Â£50billion. This massive sum has been poured into subsidising family breakdown. Has there ever been a society that has put its hands so deeply into its pockets to fund the mechanism for its own disintegration?
Further billions have been wasted in attempting to pick up the pieces. The CSA has been an unmitigated disaster, with billions of pounds of unpaid maintenance that will remain uncollected while the Government plans desperately to create yet another type of maintenance payments agency.
But the real reason for this failure lies deeper. The concept of restoring responsibility to parenthood by forcing fathers to pay maintenance is fundamentally flawed. It has actually subsidised mass fatherlessness.
This is because family breakdown is too often driven not by feckless fathers (who certainly exist, to the detriment of the women they betray), but by girls and women who now treat men as no more than sperm donors, walking wallets and occasional au pairs, and think they are otherwise entirely disposable.
And one of the principal reasons they think like that is that disapproval of lone parenthood is now forbidden, as Mr Johnson has so foolishly exulted.
The family, because it promotes self-reliance, is the bulwark of individual liberty against the incursions of an oppressive state.
In the light of that, Mr Johnsonâ€™s attempt to bury the traditional family is not just irresponsible, it is a sinister attempt to recast our society so that the state â€” not mothers and fathers â€” takes the dominant role in bringing up children.
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