What IDS’s report didn’t say

by Stephen Tall on December 12, 2006

Conservatism is a peculiar animal, and Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘Breakdown Britain’ report – which cites the collapse of the family as a major cause of social injustice here in the UK – shows just why this is the case.

I don’t dissent from his factual analysis (who can?). It is statistically the case that co-habiting couples are more likely to separate than married couples. Though clearly sad for the individuals, there is a wider societal effect if they split and children are involved: those children from lone parent families are statistically more likely to suffer behavioural problems and commit a criminal offence. The income of single mothers (the majority of lone parents) drops by some 20 per cent after separation. This, in turn, increases child poverty.

No-one can fail to be concerned by this. The question is: what should, what can, we as a society do about this?

The question, ‘what should we do about it’, is deliberately inserted. Because what was missing from IDS’s report (or, more accurately, the reporting of his report, as I haven’t yet read his 300,000 word opus) was a recognition that family breakdown is not simply a result of social liberalism, but also of economic liberalism. And here we see the tension at the heart of Conservatism, which can only ever buy into half the liberal credo.

Social liberalism – what those on the unreconstructed right-wing would regard as 1960s’ permissiveness – has undoubtedly assisted in the breakdown of traditional family values. Access to contraception and abortion, and the relaxation of the divorce laws, have given women and men far greater control over their own lives. It is no longer expected that couples should be shackled together – whether for the sake of any kids or not – if their coupledom is making them unhappy.

Such freedom is healthy – but, inevitably when you give people greater freedom, they will make mistakes. That’s the price you pay for having a free and liberal society. Social conservatives – the predominant force in the Conservative Party – regret this freedom. In fairness, most of them know they cannot turn back the clock. But that doesn’t stop them from wanting to.

Economic liberalism – which is more easily embraced by Thatcherite Conservatives, from David Cameron to Edward Leigh – has also contributed to the disintegration of the family unit. Flexible labour markets, one of Margaret Thatcher’s undoubted triumphs, are the enemy of the nuclear family. There has been an increase in the number of economically active women, which has made it easier for them to escape failing relationships. They have also stretched the traditional extended family support network: it is now far less common for three or four generations to live in the same neighbourhood.

Again you will hear no complaints from me that the freeing up of labour markets has helped make individuals, and this country, considerably more productive and wealthier. Nor do I think it should be reversed. I have yet to see many Conservatives, however, acknowledge the link between economic freedom and family breakdown.

It follows from this that those of us who are unabashed social and economic liberals (are there any left in the Conservative Party?) must accept the limitations of government action in the private sphere of family life – unless we want to undo the social and economic reforms of the latter half of the last century.

Does that mean there’s nothing to be done? No. It just means injecting some realism into the debate, recognising that marriage is not a silver bullet for society’s ills. I do not believe the benefits system should be loaded either for or against marriage; there should be equality of treatment both for cohabiting and married couples. It is no business of the state to subsidise the holy act of matrimony – marriage should be for love and keeps, not for cash. In any case, I simply do not believe that parents who won’t stay together for their kids will change their minds for an extra few quid. (Especially if, as is often the case, domestic violence is involved.)

Probably the best hope we have for minimising family breakdowns is to reduce poverty – for example, by encouraging more jobless lone parents back into work. Currently lone parents raise 13 per cent of all children, but (unsurprisingly) 31 per cent of poor children. This may require some tough-seeming measures, such as ending the non-requirement for lone parents to find work until their youngest child is 16 – a policy out-of-kilter with much of the rest of Europe. This would go in tandem with continuing (as, to be fair, Labour has started) increasing incentives for lone parents to return to employment.

There is something else we can do – and here I conclude on a more consensual note: highlight the harm that is done to society by family breakdown. If IDS’s report has helped to do that, it will have made a positive contribution to the debate.