Comment on the Comments
William Oddie FAITH Magazine September – October 2011
The Parental State
One repeated theme, both of the many vox pop interviews we all sat through in the immediate aftermath of the August riots - and of the declarations of the politicians - was that the parents of the looting hoodies were most to blame: "why don't they know where their children are at that hour of the night? Why aren't they at home?": these words, or something like them, were repeated many times that dreadful week, as we all asked ourselves what on earth was going on.
The fact was, however, that as a society, just as we had undermined the authority of the police and just as we had undermined the authority of the teaching profession by not backing them (often deliberately, in the name of "children's rights") when they attempted to establish firm discipline in the classroom, so even more calamitously had our society undermined the two parent family.
As Fr Finigan commented in his blog The Hermeneutic of Continuity:
"Few people have noted the irony of the appeals by the police to parents to 'contact their children'. For several decades our country has undermined marriage, the family, and the rights of parents. Agents of the state can teach your children how to have sex, give them condoms, put them on the pill, give them the morning-after pill if it doesn't work, and take them off for an abortion if that fails - and all without you having any say in the matter or necessarily even knowing about it. Now all of a sudden, we want parents to step in and tell their teenage children how to behave."
Melanie Phillips pointed out that she had been writing for more than two decades "on the various elements that have contributed to this collapse of order: family breakdown and mass fatherlessness; educational collapse which damages most those at the bottom of the social heap" and so on. I was writing in The Daily Mail about these things even before she was. This is very far from being a new analysis: Family and Youth Concern, still battling away, was doing pioneering work over 30 years ago (for which its founder, Valerie Riches, was deservedly made a papal dame), pointing out how disastrous for society the undermining of the traditional family based on marriage -not least by successive governments - really was.
I concluded at the time of the riots that of all the things the government now needed to do, it was the married family which most urgently needed to be rebuilt: I was and remain as certain of that as anything I have ever written, and I have been saying it repeatedly for over 20 years: I was saying it, for instance, when I was attacking (in The Mail and also The Telegraph), as it went through the Commons, the parliamentary bill which became that disastrous piece of (Tory) legislation called the Children Act 1989, which abolished parental rights (substituting for them the much weaker "parental responsibility"), which encouraged parents not to spend too much time with their children, which even, preposterously, gave children the right to take legal action against theirparents for attempting to discipline them, which made it "unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to 'reasonable punishment';" and which specified that "Whether a 'smack' amounts to reasonable punishment will depend on the circumstances of each case taking into consideration factors like the age of the child and the nature of the smack." If the child didn't think it "reasonable" he could go to the police. It was an Act which, in short, deliberately weakened the authority of parents over their children and made the state a kind of co-parent.
There are, of course, many other causes of the undermining of the married family (which David Cameron says he now wants to rebuild). Divorce, from the 1960s on, became progressively easier and easier to obtain. Another cause has been the insidious notion (greatly encouraged by successive governments but particularly under New Labour - Old Labour tended to be much more traditional in its views on the family) that the family has many forms, that marriage is just one option, and that lone parenting is just as "valid" (dread word) a form as any other. If you thought that voluntary lone parenting should be discouraged, rather than (as it was) positively encouraged by the taxation and benefits system, you were practically written off as a fascist.
Within a week after the police had restored order, the profound dangers of all this (which many of us had realised years before) had at last been demonstrated beyond any doubt: it could no longer be sensibly denied. The conclusive proof of the existence and more importantly the effects of the widespread breakdown of parental responsibility (even where there were two parents) and also of the catastrophic consequences of the encouragement of lone parenting, was described in detail on the front page of The Times newspaper of Saturday August 13. The splash headline was "Judge asks: where are the parents of rioters?" and it opened as follows:
"Parents who refuse to take responsibility for children accused of criminal offences were condemned by a judge yesterday who demanded to know why the mother of a 14-year-old girl in the dock over the looting of three shops was not in court.
District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe was incredulous when told that the girl's parents were too busy to see their daughter appear before City of Westminster magistrates after she was accused of offences during the violent disorder in London this week. She said that many parents "don't seem to care" that their children were in court facing potentially lengthy custodial sentences.
"We now know what rubbish it always was to deny that lone parenthood should be avoided wherever possible"
"Her comments echoed those a day earlier by District Judge Jonathan Feinstein when he highlighted the absence of parents at hearings in Manchester. "The parents have to take responsibility for this child - apart from one case I have not seen any father or mother in court," he said."
The Times had been conducting an investigation into the cause of the riots, and interviews with young people and community workers on estates across London revealed "deep concerns about the lack of parental authority". Youth workers said that mothers (presumably in such cases there are no fathers) are "too terrified of their own children to confront them and often turn a blind eye to cash or stolen goods brought home".
Lone parenthood, it emerged, was in fact a primary cause of the August riots:
"An analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that, among other factors linking the 18 areas worst hit by public disorder, is a high rate of single-parent families and broken homes.
"And in an interview with The Times.... Shaun Bailey, a youth worker recently appointed as the Government's "Big Society" czar, argues that childraising has been "nationalised".
"Of the defendants who appeared before magistrates in Westminster yesterday accused of riot crimes across London, half were aged under 18, but few parents attended the hearings, even though their children had been in police custody for up to two days.
"One member of the court's staff said: 'I can't recall seeing any of the parents down here'... A boy of 15 was accused of looting a JD Sports shop in Barking, East London. A 17-year-old student from East London was also accused of receiving £10,000 of mobile phones, cigarettes and clothing looted from Tesco. The items and a small quantity of cannabis were discovered in his bedroom at the family home... community workers admitted that broken families often led to children taking to crime.
"One youth worker, who has helped children in Lambeth, south London, for 20 years, told The Times that single mothers were often scared of their sons. They would not challenge them if they came home with stolen goods,' the worker, who did not wish to be named, said. 'In some cases these young men steal more than their mother earns or gets in benefit. They become the father figure, the main earner.' Young men echo the lack of authority. 'My mum can't tell me what to do,' said Lee, 18, from Copley Court, an estate in West Ealing. 'It's the same with young kids. Most of their dads left early on and they don't listen to anyone'."
There isn't much more to be said: all one can do is repeat oneself. We now know what rubbish it always was to deny that lone parenthood should be avoided wherever possible. As for marriage, study after study has shown over the years that from the point of view of the child it is the best and most stable basis for the family. In the 50s, everyone, including governments of all colours, knew that marriage was the foundation of social stability: and a man whose wife stayed at home to look after the children didn't pay any tax at all until he was earning the average national wage.
That whole dispensation was blown apart by the supposed "liberation" of the 60s, and by political ideologies of various kinds, not least by radical feminism, which was emphatically not in favour of women having the choice of remaining at home to care for children rather than going out to work. There was nothing inevitable about what happened: it was done by deliberate political design. And what political design can do, political design can undo. It's more difficult - much more difficult - of course and it can't be done overnight. David Cameron, to be fair, does seem to see some of this (lain Duncan Smith sees even more).
But does he have the political determination actually to do anything about it? What about, for instance, seriously beefing up his original plans (torpedoed by the Lib Dems) for transferable tax allowances within marriage (not partial but total, why not?). What will he actually DO to begin a reversal of the undermining of marriage that has been encompassed over the last 40 years? The Lib Dems can surely now be ignored: they were already greatly weakened: their relativist nonsense about the family being a complex and infinitely variable institution, with the one-parent family as valid as any another form of it, has never seemed more absurd, even dangerous. In the aftermath of the riots, Mr Cameron's own party was urging him to return to the family policies on which he campaigned in the 2010general election. "Mr Cameron", The Financial Times reported, "is being urged to accelerate tax breaks for married couples as part of his moral clean-up of Britain following last week's riots":
"Conservative MPs told Mr Cameron to turn his rhetoric on the importance of strong families to tackle the moral malaise into concrete action. They want to see a timetable to reward marriage in the tax system - currently scheduled for 'before 2015'.
"It was in our manifesto and the coalition agreement; the only barrier to it being imposed is the Liberal Democrats,' said Nadine Dorries, MP for mid-Bedfordshire. 'We believe that given what happened over the past week our number one priority should be reinforcing family, reinforcing relationships'....
"Their demands came as Mr Cameron flashed his Tory credentials with a speech that attacked the 'risk-free ground of moral neutrality' and called on a return to core Conservative values of marriage, commitment, discipline and duty to fix a 'broken' Britain".
We shall see. I am hopeful; I always am at first. But I greatly fear that as month succeeds month, even my own tendency towards sunny optimism will begin first to flag and then to die. But who knows? This time, I would like very much NOT to be able to say "I told you so".