With a general election pending in Britain – it looks set to happen in May – everyone is analysing political and social trends. A recent survey seemed to indicate that most people think of themselves as backing the Conservative Party – 32 per cent of the population , as against 27 per cent who consider themselves Labour supporters.
Conservative with a capital “C” maybe, in the sense of supporting the Conservatives’ economic approach, or, at any rate, rejecting that of old-style socialism. You wouldn’t find much support now for the Labour slogans of the mid-twentieth century about nationalising major industries. And the old Labour lifestyle — the beer-and-cigarettes, the women who sat knitting during the annual party conference (yes, really! there are photographs) the fish-and-chips-and-mushy-peas… All that has given way to dinners in good restaurants, and Harriet Harman in a smart suit and people who feel more comfortable ordering a cafe latte and a pannini than a brew of tea and a steak and kidney pie with chips.
But conservative with a small “c”? Not so sure. Figures show that most people seem to approve of an entire social agenda which, just a couple of decades ago, would have seemed anathema: same-sex unions, adoption of children by homosexual couples, abortion on demand. There is a general, vague feeling that it is somehow a pity that some old community values and a sense of neighbourliness have disappeared, but few people would dare to link that with the decline of specific moral principles. The majority would look blank at any suggestion that there should be a general return to male/female lifelong marriage as the norm, with extra-marital sexual activity regarded as wrong, and children taught all this as a matter of course.
In this climate, it is difficult for any incoming government to feel it has very much scope for wide-ranging thinking in its social policies. Conservative leader David Cameron has spoken of “broken Britain”, listing the high rates of juvenile crime – especially violent crime – of public drunkenness and disorder, and of many children growing up in fragmented homes where they have known no real family life. There is a general recognition that he is right, and that we have a high level of social disintegration; it is all too obvious from the vomit on our streets after a Saturday night ‘s drunken shrieking and fighting, or from first-hand knowledge of attacks on teachers by pupils or eye-witness experiences of routine nastiness in suburban shopping centres or on buses and trains. But to link these things with family breakdown, to suggest that the promotion of marriage and a sense of family commitment might be the answer – that takes a lot of courage and most politicians duck it.
Somehow, as soon as the “M” word is mentioned, people feel obliged to add that “of course, a couple living together without the formal bond of marriage is just as good” even though all the evidence shows that it isn’t. The think-tank Civitas has recently published an analysis of the statistics, and they make interesting reading. Less than four per cent of cohabitations last for ten years or more. Cohabiting also influences later marriages. The more often and the longer that men and women cohabit, the more likely they are to divorce later. ON average, the children of cohabiting couples are in every way worse off than those of married parents – financially, socially, academically. And where cohabitation involves step-children, there are extra risks. Civitas notes: “Statistically speaking, these informal cohabiting step-families are the most unsafe environments for children. Children living in cohabiting step-families are at significantly higher risk of child abuse. Live-in and visiting boyfriends are much more likely than biological fathers or married step-fathers to inflict severe physical abuse, sexual abuse and child killing.”
To be a Conservative in modern Britain is to know that there are real problems in addressing the real causes of some of the major problems that affect us. Violence in schools and on the streets? You can talk a bit about the “needs and aspirations of pupils” or even, daringly, suggest that young people’s easy access to cheap alcohol might usefully be restricted. But to mention families, discipline, or traditional social structures – well, that seems to be taboo.
This is partly because of revelations about the lifestyles of various politicians, of all political parties. Homosexual unions, extra-marital flings, divorce, you name it, it has all been revealed in the press and on the internet. So there is embarrassment for any party leader who dares to speak about the importance of marriage and family values, even if his own life is beyond reproach in this area. And there is also the awkwardness of knowing that, because the statistics for cohabitation, divorce, and casual relationships are so high, there will inevitably be several people in any given audience who will give personal and highly vocal opposition to anything which appears to be calling for an honouring of marriage and a commitment to supporting lifelong male/female matrimonial bonds above all other sexual liaisons.
What to do? Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Any new government has to tackle the reality of the “broken Britain” of which Cameron has spoken. We do need support, within the tax system, for marriage. And we need the quiet abandonment of all the current schemes promoting lesbian parenting, school-based centres for the distribution of contraceptives, and other ideas which offer lifestyle choices which have no real claim on public funds. The financial problems of Britain mean that the clutter of bureaucratic, jargon-ridden non-jobs (“diversity officer with special concern for lesbian and bisexual concerns”, “teenage sexuality adviser” etc etc) has all just got to go. The priority for funding must be to pay teachers, doctors, nurses, policemen, soldiers, firemen – people whose jobs are necessary.
At present, people in Britain feel a sense of unease about the way our country has turned into a place where once-cherished values and a sense of everyday freedom and security seem to have vanished. There is a real danger that this unease could be expressed by calls for restrictions on personal freedom so that personal searches in shops or on railway stations become routine, along with more and more surveillance cameras, intrusive questioning, the keeping of official files of personal information on ordinary citizens, registration with the authorities when you want to travel abroad or even within Britain, with fines for non-compliance.
Rising crime and a sense of deepening insecurity mean that people come to believe that abnormal restrictions on everyday freedoms are the only solution. They are not. The answer is to allow marriage and traditional family structure to flourish. Allow and encourage parents and teachers to discipline children and young people. Don’t penalise with restrictive “equality” laws those churches and church-based youth organisations which seek to promote codes of sexual morality in keeping with their Christian beliefs.
But will it happen? I fear not. The latest survey shows people believe that sexual “liberty” is something that everyone must announce as good, regardless of whether or not it results in social problems. Many people are simply pinning their faith on the arrival of some magic formula following a general election, with money as the only thing that matters. It won’t work.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.