Marriage and cohabitation
I discussed the programme with Tom earlier and he dismissed it as "just more hot air" but I think these programmes, reports, articles and discussions are increasingly important and should not be dismissed because they do have an effect (often quite a deliberate one) on public opinion and they do change social policy, which then affects people's lives in real ways. The state could not have dreamed of getting away with the compulsory school system and many other whole life-changing institutions and enforced laws were it not for this constant seemingly subliminal shaping of the way people think. This is their ground work, it's a key element of policy change and I think those of us who care and who are affected by such things ignore it at our peril: hence this long blog post about it.
This discussion was provoked by the Conservatives' new report: Breakdown Britain which, presenter Michael Buerk started by telling us, says that "Many, if not most of our social problems are caused by family breakdown and family breakdown is caused by the erosion of marriage. One in two cohabiting unmarried couples split up before their child's 5th birthday. For married couples, it's one in twelve. 70% of young offenders come from single parent families. They are much more likely to be delinquent, undereducated and addicted to drink or drugs. Looked at this way, the decline of marriage is costing us £20 billion a year. QED." He went on to frame three questions for the panel:
1. Is the actual ceremony of marriage the key difference or is it just that more commited couples, themselves from stable backgrounds, choose to marry: self-selecting for good outcomes?
2. Where does money come in? Is poverty a major cause of family breakdown or is the opposite true? Are more women opting to leave relationships that they regard as unsatisfactory because jobs or benefits mean they can and live independantly?
3. And if you accept the premise, what do you do? Differential tax incentives would be risky politics, but not half as risky as the moral arguments that would follow an attempt to reassert the supremacy of the conventional norm - to go back to the idea that all lifestyles are not equal. Are broken families the problem and is marriage the answer?
Melanie Phillips kicked off by saying, unsurprisingly, that all relationships are certainly not equal in the value that they have to individuals and to the state. "Marriage is unique in the benefits it provides for both individuals and for society. That's why it was until recently the one sexual relationship that was subsidised by the state because of the damage that would happen if it broke down and that's where we've got to now. We now have a 'me society' in which moral discussion has become taboo and in which we've simply abandoned both compassion and the most vulnerable among us."
Clare Fox said that she certainly didn't "fetishise[sic] or idealise marriage as a morally ideal estate and it's certainly not the solution for poverty, which I would suggest would be to give people more money." But she did think that the flight from marriage was problematic, "And culturally represents and ambiguity we have socially about long term commitment." She said that she felt more concerned about 'singleton society': too many of us going solo because we don't believe we can live with each other collectively.
Steven Rose at last pointed out that the relationship of a woman living on the poverty line with a brutal husband whilst doing a rough job and trying to rear a child is different from the sort of relationships that are possible for those people with relatively comfortable lifestyles of those people taking part in the discussion. He stressed the importance firstly of a woman being able to escape from an unsatisfactory and brutalising relationship and secondly that any children of the relationship should not be penalised "but should be given the best that society can provide."
Ian Hargreaves commented that if people don't want the 'singleton society' as described by Clare Fox, "it will self-correct." He spoke in favour of marriage and said that "stability is good for most children, most people, most of the time but I really don't think it's any business of the state to attempt to bribe or browbeat people into that particular view. That's the state invading personal relationships and I always thought Conservatives were opposed to that."
Mary McLeod, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute was introduced as the panel's first witness. She was asked how meaningful the statistics in the report were. I liked her: she spoke very carefully throughout in a constant attempt to be thoughtful and clear about what she meant, first answering that trying to compare marriage with cohabitation wasn't easy because all cohabiting relationships are not the same. She spoke of the need to 'segment' cohabitation, to find out more about the different kinds of relationships that are part of that category. Some cohabiting couples are as commited as married ones, she said.
Melanie Phillips interjected to say that this was precisely the problem. By people like Mary McLeod 'talking up' cohabitation as being as good as marriage, this drives the move towards fatherlessness 'which is caused by the breakdown of relationships, which is caused by cohabitation.' But Mary McLeod said that people should no longer be forced to stay together just because they had no choice if a relationship wasn't working. "Marriage itself is not the kind of magic bullet that keeps people together, though the evidence suggests that it does have a bit of an impact."
Melanie Phillips said again that 'talking up' cohabitation actually 'incentivises' it and the welfare system benefits people who live apart and who then cohabit on the side and asked whether a hammer had been taken to the institution of marriage.
Mary McLeod said the important thing is children and the important role the state should play in making sure that "children, as far as possible, do well." Ms Phillips interrupted again, saying "Surely children's best interests are served by their parents looking after them while they're growing up. They suffer from every disadvantage known if their parents break up and their parents are much more likely to break up if they are not married?"
Mary McCleod listed "poverty and deprivation, poor education, drug and alcohol misuse and mental health problems" as all having a great bearing on outcomes for children. She said it was difficult to plot the 'directional effects' of the link between poverty and unstable relationships.
Ms Phillips said this isn't true. "The research disaggregates poverty," (by which I assume she means it separates the reasons for it though I wasn't quite sure). "The vast majority of people in the lowest decile of income are couples and their children do not suffer this terrible catalogue of ill effects. It's not just children, it's also women. Women are much more likely to be abused by boyfriends. Children are much more likely to be abused by stepfathers.. of course we must say that there are many shattered and broken families where this doesn't happen, but social policy has to be made on the basis of what is generally the case and generally it is the case that women and children are very badly served by the breakdown of marriage."
Mrs McLeod cited the Millennium Cohort Study and said that if you 'bleed out' the poverty effects there is still a difference between marriage and cohabitation, although not a very great one. She also mentioned the recent ONS study on mental health problems and again if you 'bleed out' mental health problems and poverty then the difference is very small. "So as a state you have to try to think, which levers are you going to use to try to improve stable relationships and perhaps incentivising marriage might not be the only way or even the best way."
She admitted to being unclear as to whether the correct 'financial modelling' had been done to ensure that financial incentives would make more people marry, but said that she felt you can't impose that kind of choice and that one of the interesting things that came out of the Conservative Party report is the suggestion that women make a commitment when they get into a cohabitation and men only make a commitment really around marriage. "And so you get into this terrible question of, I mean, what do we do about men? Is the problem masculinity?
Mr Hargreaves then asked Mrs McCleod whether she thought that self-fulfillment (the "me society") was problematic to good relationship-building, which she answered by saying that when people have expectations of relationships that relationships can't possibly fulfill and when they imagine they're going to get the perfect life from a relationship and therefore feel less tolerant of some of the difficulties that happen in relationships, this can cause problems. He replied by asking whether self-fulfillment wasn't, however, a natural consequence of an affluent society? And she talked about a good relationship being an odd balance between having personal aspirations and being able to also tolerate having some constraints made on these. She said this is the key to good relationships, especially obvious between parents and children. That you have to change your aspirations when you become a parent, "or it doesn't kind of work."
Michael Buerk then brought in the issue of moralising, asking Mary McCleod whether her organisation sought to avoid it. She agreed that they did seek to avoid it because people on the whole resent being nagged and therefore it doesn't help. Melanie Phillips jumped in to say that this is the problem: people won't moralise. "The essence of social justice is to be moral, to make distinctions between behaviour that is beneficial to individuals and behaviour that does harm to individuals. How can you possibly uphold a doctrine which says that you won't make a judgement between behaviour that does harm and behaviour that does good?"
"What we say is that we'll try as far as we can to show the evidence to people to enable people to make choices for themselves about how they behave, though actually I suppose that many of what appear to be choices are often contingiencies: they just happen because life happens. So I think there is a difference between making judgements about what's right and what's wrong in terms of child poverty or child abuse and.." Mary McCleod started to say carefully.
"But aren't you muddying the evidence?" interjected Melanie Phillips in her school ma'am voice. "Because the evidence, as I said before, is very clear that it's not poverty that causes these problems for children and adults. It is marriage breakdown."
"I don't agree," said Mary McCleod firmly, "That it's marriage breakdown only. I think it's much more complicated and that we're talking about relationships within a culture, within a community, within a culture that commercialises relationships and commercialises childhood and so I suppose I'm saying that it's more complicated than simply marriage."
The next witness was then introduced: Theodore Dalrymple, retired prison doctor, author of Life at the Bottom: the Worldview that Makes the Underclass. Michael Buerk asked him first whether he thought poverty was the cause of marital breakdown and thus of so many of society's ills.
Mr Dalrymple answered no, if there was any causative relationship it's the other way around, that family breakdown causes poverty and in particular, squalor.
[squalor n. the state of being filthy or squalid. squalid adj. 1.filthy, repulsively dirty. 2. mean or poor in appearance. 3. wretched, sordid.]
"What we're talking about is moral, intellectual, educational, emotional squalor, which I've seen on a huge scale in this country."
Steven Rose enquired whether Mr Dalrymple had ever tried or could imagine what it would be like to bring up a child in this country on minimum wage which amounted to £160 - £200 per week. A short discussion ensued between the two men about the history of poverty and what such an amount of money actually means in today's terms. This led Mr Dalrymple onto stating his belief that there is no real poverty in Britain today, only squalor, which he defined as "a wilful decision to live amongst disorder, to make decisions which are obviously and knowingly leading to personal and social disaster."
A further discussion ensued between the two men about the extent to which income constrains such choices. Mr Dalrymple mentioned the 34% of children who do not eat around a table, who never eat with another person, which has nothing to do with the size of family income.
Mr Rose asked why rates of poverty and child abuse were 'so much worse' in Britain than elsewhere. Mr Dalrymple denied this was the case and they discussed for some minutes the global situation regarding these issues, as it compares to the UK position in which Mr Dalrymple uttered the following: "What we see in this country is an appalling education system in comparison with most other countries."
Clare Fox asked Mr Dalrymple how we could make people choose marriage and how we could make it more attractive. Mr Dalrymple questioned the ethics and practicalities of making people do anything but he conceded that marriage could be made more attractive by incentives, but also by 'a lot of intellectual activity' and that it was important to try to get away from the idea that one form of human relationship was as good as another "and if that is what the intellectual class is telling people at the bottom of the social scale and that's what we've been hearing for a long time, it's not surprising.."
Ms Fox interrupted to ask Mr Dalrymple whether he thought the tax breaks being discussed were a good thing. "The state cannot be neutral in this matter," he answered. "It supports one thing or the other. There is no neutral policy." When pushed to answer the question about tax breaks he said, "Well I think I'm in favour of it but it's not a panacea. Nothing is a panacea. But we also have to get away from the idea that lots of people have, that one form of association is as good as another and it doesn't really matter for the children. It doesn't matter for society."
Clare Fox then expressed her opinion that "The tax break thing seems to me to be the most morally vacuous suggestion going because it reduces marriage to a contract. It assumes the only way you can inspire people to get married is to offer them a bit more money."
Theodore Dalrymple countered this by telling her, "You've got the romantic idea that the only basis for association is the sexual attraction of the moment and that once that goes then people should just separate," but Ms Fox denied that this was what she had meant. "I was suggesting that marriage might be more than a contract motivated by tax and if all your intellectual morally inspiring way forward is that, then I'm suggesting it's not very exciting." Mr Dalrymple denied that he had said any such thing, and it transpired her comment had been a tit-for-tat one, as she muttered "Well I wasn't suggesting what you said I was, but if we're going to cariacature.." which puzzled me.
She then went on to ask him whether the state should stay out of sacred, private issues like marriage and relationships. "The point about the break up of marriage is that it actually allows the state into the intestaces of private life in a way that never existed before, because when we don't have marriage what we have is the state as the paternal parent. Now, anyone who's had any dealings with the state (and I've spent my entire life dealing with the organisations of so-called welfare) I can tell you, it's a most miserable and terrible existence."
Michael Buerk asked Mr Dalrymple whether he believed in the Victorian distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Mr Dalrymple said that he did, "Because if you don't have any idea of desert, if you just have need, then you lack all compassion. And you can only have compassion of some people deserve more than others. For example, in my work if I would want to call up a social worker, I could not say 'This is a particularly deserving case,' because if I did that would imply there were cases that were less deserving which, on the theory of dealing with need, cannot exist. Now I can make myself needful by squandering all my money. Does that make me deserving of assistance?"
Ian Hargreaves asked Mr Dalrymple whether he thought the problems in family breakdown were different for better off than for poorer people. Mr Dalrymple replied that there were fewer instances of family breakdown in more affluent environments but that the problems faced by them both were very similar. "For example 94% of New Zealand fathers who go to Australia to work will not pay court ordered child maintenance, so we've obviously got some kind of moral crisis where fathers don't believe that they have any moral responsibility, which they cannot escape, for their children."
"You obviously have an idealised view of what good parenting, a good family, looks like. You want them sitting around the table eating together, not watching too much television, parents spending a lot of time with their children on a sustained basis and parents who don't do that, that's bad parenting, you would agree?" asked Mr Hargreaves.
"Yes," answered Mr Dalrymple.
"So what do you think about parents who send their children to boarding school at the age of 7?"
"Err well, I think seven is a little early.. " [General laughter.]
"So should the state be expressing its concern about this form of dereliction of parenting duty?"
"No, absolutely not, because.."
"Why does it not count as squalor?"
"It doesn't count as squalor because they're not, one hopes, sending their children to squalid schools. If they do, if they make no effort to find out what those schools are actually like, that is a gross dereliction of parenting duty. And furthermore, of course, the children are only in the school half the year or.. or.. 30 weeks.."
"What this reveals is that your definition of squalor is physical and not moral. You're defining squalor by something that you look at and it looks smelly and repulsive and you don't like that, but that is actually poverty."
"No it isn't. That is a disgusting thing to say. What you're saying is that poor people can't be clean. That's nonsense. You're saying they're dirty."
"No, what I'm saying is that you are making a moral distinction about neglect or a particular form of parenting which you don't find culpable when it's attended by that which you can afford when you've got plenty of money, but when you see the same kind of neglect happening around satellite television you find it repulsive and you use a word like squalid."
"It's ridiculous to compare a school with a television and watching television. That's ludicrous."
Steven Rose: "No-one around this table ever said that all relationships were equal, but I'm very concerned about your distinction between deserving and undeserving in this sense. Let's take need as an issue. What about the need of the children of your definition of undeserving poor? Do they deserve no compassion? Do they deserve no treatment at all? When you yourself know very well that to bring children up in, to use your word, squalor, is likely to repeat the event in the next generation?"
Theodore Dalrymple: "Now what I'm not saying is that you make any kind of retrospective change. What I'm saying is we need prospective change. And of course there will always be hard cases but I think if you change the atmosphere, if you change the kind of policies you have there will be fewer cases of children living in this kind of squalor. That is the aim."
Steve Chalk, founder of the Oasis Trust (an evangelical Christian charity working in 'underprivileged communities') was the programme's last witness. He got a cheer from me with his first sentence:
"At the beginning of the programme, Michael, you said that family breakdown is caused by the erosion of marriage. But I think that marriage breakdown is caused by the erosion of the family and by community. I'd like to ask you what do you all mean by family? We have a very shrunken view of family in the West. I agree that we live in a 'me me me me' society and what that results in is community structures, family structures that are unable to sustain marriages."
At the end of the debate, the panel agreed with him but said that we can't go back to extended families and we have to find ways of working with the situation as it is now. Melanie Phillips said the essence of social policy should incentivise good behaviour and minimise harm, whereas the present welfare state, her her opinion, does the opposite. One of the men (Ian Hargreaves I think) was heard to mutter: "Rubbish," to this statement, and that was the end of both the programme and the series this year.
For me, the discussion didn't solve anything but it did serve to highlight some salient points and opinions which will, one way or another, take form in new laws and affect our lives in future years.
But nobody in the programme identified what I think is the most important factor: the sacred relationship between mothers and babies. The most optimum start in life for any child of any status is 100% devoted, 24/7 mothering. Co-sleeping, breastfeeding on demand, baby-wearing: constant nourishment, security and support. It doesn't really matter who or what provides for this circumstance to be possible, whether it's an extended family structure, a husband, a father or the state. If it's allowed to happen then the child will grow up feeling OK. This first most important bond lays the foundation for all the child's other interactions, with the rest of its family and with the rest of the world, for the rest of its life.
While ever we have systems like SureStart, compulsory state intervention in early parenthood, state compulsory schooling from an ever younger age and even some of our modern maternity systems that detract from this and act to separate mothers from their babies and young children even for relatively short periods of time, we're hindering the process of the development of secure, mentally healthy members of society. The first, most important lesson for a new person to learn is that the world (its mother) will always be there, on its side, providing for its needs. For a mother to do this she needs to be well-supported financially, practically and emotionally and she needs to feel good about herself and what she's doing.
Use of emotive terms like 'shattered families' is also counter productive. The end of its parents' marriage can bring about a vast improvement in a child's life. It certainly did for my children. During marriage my time was split, unreasonable demands were made of me and I was far too isolated and pressured to be the best mother I could be for them. The breakdown of the marriage solved all of those problems in a stroke.
This panel of influential social policy-makers was primarily concerned about children 'doing well', by which I take to mean: become academically and therefore economically 'successful' - a useful aim maybe, but not by any means the solution to society's major problems. Most of the panel placed undue importance on marriage and affluence as being 'The Solution' when they quite plainly are not. The witnesses Mary McCleod and Steve Chalk had the most useful things to say when they talked about the commercialising of children and family relationships, and the context of marriage and parenthood in the wider family and community background. But these excellent and crucial points were summarily ignored by the panel.
Melanie Phillips' attitude of "Single parent: bad, married parent: good," is neither true nor helpful in this respect, in fact it's extremely damaging for both mother, baby and, by extension, society. In fact Melanie Phillips and the fact that she evidently has so much of the Prime Minister's ear worries me generally. She persists in seeing issues in black and white terms, despite having spent at least the 45 minutes' duration of the programme listening to and questioning people who were older and more experienced than herself and appeared to end the programme with her views being exactly the same as she started it with - despite being told quite categorically by Mary McCleod that the issues were far more complicated than she was allowing for.
I wish Tony Blair was listening to Mary McCleod instead, but I suspect her quieter, more considered and worldly-wise opinions would not excite him as much as Ms Phillips' bossy, direct, 'no nonsense' style. There is definitely something of the supernanny about that woman, although her "Surely children's best interests are served by their parents looking after them while they're growing up," statement did give me some hope. I wonder how literal she means to be about this. 24/7 parents looking after them, or just the rushed half-hour of commuter-land breakfast and the staged 'family around the dinner table now let's do your homework before brownies and piano practice' which can't possibly be of more actual benefit to a child's wellbeing than a relaxed TV-dinner for one on the sofa.
The panel kept asking how to make marriage more attractive, but why should marriage be made more attractive? Why should two people make a promise to stay together forever, come what may, to a god they don't necessarily believe in? Why should they even promise this to the state or to each other, when nobody can possibly know whether the keeping of it could be possible, or what factors might be involved in the future? I can't for the life of me see why so much fuss is made of this ceremony and associated piece of paper. The act of sex is surely much more important, because this is when new people are made.
My own personal experiences of marriage, cohabitation and family 'breakdown' is as follows:
This last point is especially pertinent as I've just found out that leaving the father's name off a birth certificate is to become illegal. This is apparently one of the regulations due to come in as part of the CSA restructuring, although how they've managed to sneak a whole new law past us escapes me. What if the mother doesn't know the identity of the father of her child (as many will be forced to claim they don't)? Will sex without prior proof of identity and keeping records of such become illegal also? Zara laughed at this and said, "Of course not! How can they possibly enforce that?" But to me it's no laughing matter. In this mad world of state power and citizen weakness anything is possible, even the most ludicrous, seemingly impossible scenario. Nothing would surprise me any more.
I gave the CSA all my ex-husband's details on their request, his employers' details, the size of his income and his spending habits and they didn't even try to extract any cash from him. Every time they asked him for further, supporting information he retaliated by bringing a court case against me. Nothing in the world would compel me to trust the state with this kind of information again. It did my children more damage than anything else they experienced - certainly more damage than the marriage break-up itself.
It all makes me think of the murder victims in Ipswich also. How could Gemma Adams possibly end up as a prostitute on heroin when she'd had a childhood including brownies, ponyclub, piano lessons and two doting, affluent parents who remain together to this day? 'Society' should not rest until it has worked out the answer to this question, because therein lies our salvation, not in the stigmatisation of single parenthood, absent fathers and 'poverty'.
Heroin, so I'm told, makes the user feel warm and cosseted. The feeling of a heroin hit has been likened to the unconditional love and warmth a young child feels (or should feel) from its mother. Heroin is a chemical substitute for mother love. There, but for the grace of my children - because being on the other end of that kind of love is just as beneficial - go I.
Cocaine is the drug of choice for people lacking in confidence and self-esteem. Taking cocaine, so I gather, makes you feel eloquent, communicative and brave. We should be looking at the lives of our nation's young people to work out what's going wrong that they need a chemical replacement for confidence.
Alcohol provides oblivion. To an alcoholic, sobriety is difficult, painful and often unbearable. Thinking sober thoughts is to be avoided at all costs. Why? What's happening to people in our 'civilised', 'affluent' world to cause this?
Cigarettes are a psychological crutch. It's easier to have one's ups and downs controlled by nicotine than by the events of life itself. I think tobacco smokers tend to be people who haven't been allowed enough control in their lives and so feel the need to regulate themselves with nicotine hits.
Most of us have some form of escapism and/or distraction because modern life, from cradle to grave, somehow doesn't provide us with all the emotional security and stability we need. The answer, I think, lies in those first few years and the relationship between a child and its mother. The Catholic Church with its worship of the Madonna has it right on this issue, in my opinion. Not that women or mothers should be held to be especially more sacred than other people but that the bond between mother and baby/young child should be.
And I read a statistic this week which said that 10% of UK men are now apparently paying for sex. I don't know whether I think that's a good thing or a bad thing. I've known quite a few men who view marriage as being some kind of live-in prostitution arrangement (with payments stopping when the sex does) so in that respect perhaps many more than 10% can be included in this group. Our feelings about sex, possession and money go far deeper than pieces of paper and I suspect the connections between them all run equally deep. In Babylon the prostitutes lived in the temples and were worshipped as goddesses. In modern Britain they are associated with poverty and deprivation, the objects of our sympathy at best and our disgust at worst.
Some of the most vehement critics of prostitution I've known have been women who openly admit that they got married, and stay married, for money.