Summer riots

Summer riots: using the family to heal Broken Britain

The summer riots in British cities have confirmed the feeling which many people share that recent social change and policies in Britain have spawned a lost generation of men. But this feeling does not yet seem to be matched by similarly shared ideas about how to deal with this. Going round the Museum of Childhood recently with my young daughter I was intrigued to find an exhibit suggesting that it is fine to have two female parents. We are continuing to marginalise men.

That is why a new organisation, Men for Tomorrow, is now being set up, in order to explore what has happened to men and help find some solutions. There are many bodies in Britain asking these questions. What is distinctive about MfT is that it does not rule out the possibility that some traditional ideas about how to civilise men, and make them useful, may actually work better than current, more progressive notions.

A central component of the traditional approach to men was the idea that family life helped to make them better citizens. The state itself was seen as needing families which contained and domesticated men. However, too many social policies in Britain in recent decades have treated men and women as independent individuals. For the first 30 years or so of the welfare state, benefits were given to families as groups, and so they reinforced the mutual care which these provided. But ever since the tear-jerking Cathy Come Home, there has been increasing attention given to the needs of autonomous adult individuals, starting with women and then extending – through the relentless logic of individualism – to adult men as well.

This development has probably been OK for women. Like Cathy, most of them have, or can expect to have, direct dependents whose neediness socialises them and moderates their selfishness. But men do not. Most of them need relationships with women in order to experience an equivalent effect – and that is perhaps the main difference between men and women these days. So, on the one hand we now have growing numbers of single mothers who are highly motivated to play a part in community life and who, with state help, can survive very well and even flourish; while on the other hand many of the men who are liberated by single motherhood from living as fathers and partners, and therefore do not have people directly calling on their care and eliciting their altruism, remain self-obsessed Peter Pans. Such men, who are typically not well integrated into the lives of their local communities, have almost certainly played a significant role in our recent riots. We need to start getting men back into families.

David Cameron has promised to promote family life as a means of restoring Broken Britain. But unless he addresses these fundamental differences in the social position and formative experience of men and women he is unlikely to get very far. And he faces a lot of opposition to this even within the Tory party, let alone the coalition as a whole. People like Charlotte Vere have demanded more party attention to women’s interests; and this seems likely to focus much more on women’s own rights and opportunities than on the needs of families as such.

The argument that has been put forward by Vere and others is that Conservative success in 2010 was boosted by a revival in their share of the women’s vote, but that since then many women have gone back to Labour. This does fit the voting and party support pattern; but we should be extremely careful how we interpret this. The implication drawn by critics of David Cameron is that more should be done ‘for women’. But my own analyses suggest that what many women actually want, especially younger women, is for more to be done for family life in the round, in which men are expected and enabled to contribute more. And this involves playing down rather than ramping up policies to promote women’s own economic participation. It may not be David Cameron’s ideas about family life that are turning women off, but his failure to carry them forward.

The swing of women to New Labour in the early and mid-1990s took place overwhelmingly among working women. Those women at the heart of conventional family life (non-working mothers and ‘housewives’) themselves abandoned Labour as they saw it turn its back on families – so that, for example, the 52% of working class housewives who supported Labour in 1986 had gone down to 27% by 2008. This is probably what boosted the Conservative female vote in 2010; just as it is disappointment with Cameron’s neglect of his promises (plus the emergence of Theresa May as the new Harriet Harman) which may underlie the shift back to Labour.

What politicians need to remember – and what Ed Miliband does seem to understand – is that most ordinary women want their men to be more active and responsible again; not ever less so. They are tired of professional women speaking for them, and making the world more difficult for them, and they appreciate that the first step to making men more responsible and responsive is to get them back into families. This is what Men for Tomorrow is preparing to help bring about, through careful research and policy analysis. And we will be looking with interest at what David Cameron says next.