Marcus Rashford of Manchester United receives an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester (Photo by Tom Purslow/Manchester United via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Rashford trap

Rashford’s campaigning moves the state towards becoming a substitute parent

Marcus Rashford is back in campaigning mode. While collecting an honorary degree from the University of Manchester, the England forward spoke out against the removal of the temporary £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit.

And despite a recent Twitter faux pas adding to speculation that not all his social media posts are authored by him personally and that his smart PR team may be responsible for some of his agenda, the animosity felt in some right-wing circles towards the young Manchester United star is surely misplaced.

It would take a very ungenerous opponent to dispute that Rashford conducts his political campaigning in measured and dignified terms. It is hard, for instance, to imagine him ever referring to government ministers as “scum”, as the deputy leader of the Labour Party did recently.

And given that he is someone who has already earned more money than he will ever need to fund a luxurious lifestyle, it is also difficult to put together an argument that suggests Rashford’s attempts to shift the Government’s social policy leftwards are motivated by a desire to make himself more marketable than he already is rather than by genuine concern for deprived children.

And yet that does not mean the only mode when examining Rashford’s latest intervention should be one of awed admiration either.

William Clouston, the leader of the SDP, identified something disquieting about the footballer’s targeting of the withdrawal of the UC uplift: “Another coup for Marcus Rashford in criticising welfare cuts but, like calling for free school meals, these are easy wins for his media team. Tap ins. I’d love Rashford to address the question of family breakdown and absent fatherhood — which is the prime cause of child poverty.”

For the sake of openness, I should mention that I am a member of the SDP, partly on grounds of it being the only sensible party to talk about the beleaguered status of the family in modern Britain. And I think Mr Clouston has hit the nail on the head here.

A perverse consequence could be more and more fathers become blasé about their duty to their children

Because there is a mountain of social research suggesting that no conceivable additional support from the state can make up for more than a small fraction of the disadvantages that children, particularly those growing up in deprived areas, tend to experience when their parents split up.

They are much more likely to suffer outright poverty, health problems, under-achievement at school, impediments to cognitive and non-cognitive development, lower earnings in adulthood, involvement with the criminal justice system and a host of other handicaps.

In particular, being raised by married parents confers striking advantages to children from households of every income level. The bulk of the research in this field has been conducted in America (for example here) but the broad conclusions are replicated in every western country.

Anyone wanting to immerse themselves more deeply in the research could do a lot worse than seek out the links in the “Benefits of marriage” Twitter thread put up by the prolific tweeter Post Liberal Pete.

Rashford was himself brought up, along with his siblings, by his mother after his parents split up when he was very young. He paid tribute to her in an open letter he sent to MPs last year while campaigning against child poverty, telling them: “The man you see before you is a product of her love and care. I have friends who are from middle-class backgrounds who have never experienced a small per centage of the love I have gotten from my mum: a single parent who would sacrifice everything she had for our happiness.”

Yet he has also spoken movingly about the material deprivation he encountered as a youngster, including at times going hungry. “I remember forcing myself to sleep as a child, just so the feeling of hunger would go away,” he wrote.

When a child is in that position there are lots of institutions that can step in, including local community charities as well as various different arms of the state. Yet the best and most natural solution is surely for both parents to provide for their children and to be encouraged to stay together while they do so.

The Prime Minister’s domestic arrangements have killed discussion of these issues stone dead

Given that these days more than one in five British children are brought up by lone parents — almost invariably their mother — the conspiracy of silence among politicians about how to combat family breakdown is unforgivable. On the Labour side, any discussion about the superior record of married parents in rearing healthy, happy and well-fed children is generally regarded as unacceptably stigmatising for single parents. On the Tory side the Prime Minister’s own complex record as far as domestic arrangements are concerned has also pretty much killed discussion of these issues stone dead.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid was happy enough to talk in his conference speech about looking after frail elderly relatives being a responsibility for families rather than the state in the first instance. But curiously enough, no minister made the same point in regard to children.

The danger with Marcus Rashford’s eloquent campaigning is that it puts us on a one-way ratchet towards the state becoming an invariably inadequate substitute parent, perhaps with the unintended and perverse consequence that more and more fathers become blasé about their own duty to support their children financially and emotionally.

The missing ingredient here is for a celebrity with a similar reach to that of Mr Rashford to start campaigning about the benefits children accrue when their parents stay together and share the burden of child-rearing. One suspects that media acclaim — and honorary degrees — will be in short supply for anyone brave enough to take the plunge.

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