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Artillery Row

Confected outrage doesn’t change the facts about the family

Why does British political debate often disregard children’s interests?

On Thursday I was interviewed by Times Radio to discuss what policies I would like to see in next year’s Conservative manifesto. Pretty standard for a political interview one might think, but not, as it happens, on Twitter (X), where so far the clip has been viewed nearly one million times and hundreds of users have accused me variously of “blaming parents for dying”, being “vile”, “evil”, “thick”, “homophobic”, “disgusting”, a “white power barbie” and wanting women to stay in abusive relationships. It turns out that not all publicity is good publicity.

You may be wondering what on earth I said to have evoked such an extreme response. Did I demand that the next manifesto include a promise to drown kittens and privatise the NHS? No, my policy “ask” was far more anodyne; I merely suggested we should adjust our taxation system to end the “family penalty” that sees British families paying significantly more tax than in most comparable countries.

Having children and bringing them up well is surely one of the best things anyone can do to serve society

Having children and bringing them up well is surely one of the best things anyone can do to serve society. We should therefore not only celebrate those who are raising the future generation but also use the tax and benefits system to support their endeavours. Currently, the failure of the British tax system to recognise households (HMRC treats all earners as disconnected individuals) piles financial pressure on families, making it harder to make ends meet even when parents work long hours.  

I am well aware of the political landmines buried in any public discourse about “the family” and so I was careful to say that I think all families — anyone raising children — deserve support. I made clear my admiration for single parents, who do a remarkable job in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I pointed out that Britain has become the family breakdown capital of the West, with nearly half of UK children now experiencing parental separation, and that this is bad for children not least because single parent families are far more likely to live in poverty. Given that — statistically — children are more likely to achieve good outcomes in health, education and future earnings when they grow up living with both biological parents, I suggested that we ought to be questioning why it is that Britain has such extraordinary rates of family breakdown. I was careful to tell listeners that I believe there are often very good reasons why parents do split up and that any proposed tax breaks should support all families. The full interview can be seen on my YouTube channel and the Times Radio Twitter clip here.  

The text accompanying Times Radio’s tweet did not properly reflect the nuances of the debate and the most common criticism from Twitter users seems to be that I didn’t mention single mothers, suggesting many of those who commented simply did not watch the clip. A (suitable for print) summary of the principal objections is that “it doesn’t matter who brings up a child as long as they are loved and by suggesting otherwise you are committing hate speech”.  Irritating as it is to be so publicly misrepresented and insulted (though many of my colleagues have had far worse), the visceral reaction to my comments is rather fascinating and reveals three interesting features of current political culture.

Firstly, any attempt to challenge the liberal consensus is met not with counter arguments but with “ists”: cries of “fascist”, “racist”, “supremacist”, “natalist”. By the “liberal consensus” I mean the view that individual autonomy should be prized above all else and that the choices that individuals make in their pursuit of happiness are not up for debate. This view is based on the idea that all choices are equal and in this case that it doesn’t matter who brings up a child, so long as the adults involved have autonomy to pursue happiness. 

Sadly, this thought experiment does not survive a collision with reality

Sadly, this thought experiment does not survive a collision with reality. There is indisputable evidence that children who are raised by both biological parents are more likely than any other group to have good outcomes across every measure. Indeed, parental separation is one of the seven globally recognised Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that are linked to poor health in adulthood. It is demonstrably untrue to say that family structure doesn’t matter. But to the liberal consensus, reality doesn’t count: the important thing is that it ought to be true that family structure doesn’t matter. Since this position is not evidenced-based, responses involve the throwing of insults or attempts to misrepresent the argument being made.

Secondly, Twitter pile-ons represent a modern unwillingness — perhaps an inability — to separate the personal from the general. As individuals we must make choices based on the best interests of our nearest and dearest. This means, for example, that for a woman being abused by her husband or partner, the best possible choice she can make for herself and her children is to end the relationship. It means that for some children, being adopted is the best possible route to a happy childhood. In these cases, being separated from one or both parents is clearly of benefit to the children involved. But on a national level, the scale of family breakdown is a tragedy and an economic and public health issue, and it is surely right for politicians and policy makers to discuss how to address trends at the population level for the common good.

There are clear parallels with the immigration debate: many individual immigrants contribute enormously to our society, but that doesn’t negate the fact that immigration levels are unsustainably high. Yet any politician who dares to express this view is labelled as xenophobic. Of course politicians need to be sensitive and careful when talking about issues that are personal — and painful — to many. But the inability to distinguish between the individual and the national leads to expressions of outrage when politicians make much-needed generalisations. The resulting fear of debate does not lead to good policy making.

Lastly, and perhaps most disturbingly, the reaction to the interview demonstrates how little priority our culture gives to children’s interests. All the discussion about this issue — and many others that I have strayed into such as the “trans” debate, school lockdowns and universal childcare — revolves around the choices and best interests of adults. Why shouldn’t drag queens have the freedom to use young children to affirm their sexual fetish? Why shouldn’t we shut schools if it keeps adults safe? (It didn’t.) Why does it matter if we put small babies in institutional childcare if it means women can get back to work? In this case, “Why should it matter that so many children grow up without both parents if all adults involved have free choice?”

Nothing has shocked me more in politics than how completely children’s interests are disregarded in UK debate and policy making. It seems that the sacrifice of adult freedoms, necessary to prioritise the nurture of children, is incompatible with a doctrine of individual autonomy.

The good news is that Twitter is not real. Twitter storms rage in a teacup and do not reflect the opinions of the wider public, as was demonstrated so memorably during Brexit. Views on family structure are no different; polling shows that the vast majority (82 per cent) of British adults think that it is important for children to grow up with both parents, and 75 per cent agree family breakdown is a serious problem and more should be done to prevent families from breaking up. Though it is sometimes hard to believe from deep inside the Westminster bubble, most people don’t subscribe to the Twitter orthodoxy. They prefer to save their energy for genuine outrage rather than the confected variety.

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