Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stack on the back

Ideal home inhibition

Why do politicians keep picking on single parents, asks Pat Stack
Ideal home inhibition

When Wee William Hague announced his electoral promise to cut taxes, it was absolutely typical of the Tories that the sums didn't even add up. Torn between out and out Tory instincts to further line the pockets of the rich, and the realisation that cutting spending on health and education would be a suicidal strategy, Hague and his team of halfwits scrabbled around elsewhere to 'find' the 'savings'.

Much of their list was made up of privatisations and sell-offs, but tucked away in the middle of it going almost unnoticed were cuts to single parent benefits.

Once again single parents are singled out for special attention. During the Thatcher/Major years single parents came in for a barrage of abuse, constantly cited as being responsible for most of society's ills.

No doubt you will remember that one of the first attacks the Blair government launched was on the benefits of single mothers, and all the efforts of the hapless Harriet Harman to pretend otherwise couldn't hide the fact that New Labour was adding financial injury to Tory verbal insult. Now the Tories want to outdo the Blairites in order to promise some grubby tax cut.

Meanwhile the ideological insults continue. The tragic killing of Damilola Taylor brought down a torrent of abuse on the residents of Peckham, with much talk of lack of parental control and repeated references to the number of single parent families in the area. This without any knowledge of who was responsible for Damilola's death or what their family situation was.

Indeed, although there may be some differences in language between Blairite and Tory, the essential message is the same-that there is a family model of two parents of different gender and two to three children who live in nice houses, go to nice schools, go to university and end up in nice jobs.

Leaving aside for a second the fact that even children from such model families can get caught selling drugs or laying in their own drunken vomit in the street, the more important fact is that this 'family' is largely a myth. It is estimated that by 2010 there will be more children in single parent families than in the monogamous, married, middle class model. So what we have are politicians pushing a model that doesn't match the reality of people's lives. Indeed, the further we get from their ideal, the more King Canute like they seem to become in their attempts to 'stem the tide of the break-up of the family'.

Of course their model is not only out of date, but also bears little resemblance to the realities of working class family life, past or present. Like so many 'golden ages', that of the 'model family' is largely a myth.

What is true though is that from the 1960s onwards the stigma attached to not fitting the model was gradually eroded. What makes all this ideological guff so disgusting is that it seems to hanker after the stigma. It seeks to denigrate all family arrangements that don't conform to the so called ideal model.

So all hail to the return of the stigma. Coming from Ireland makes you acutely aware of what impact that stigma had. Families stayed together despite violence, abuse and misery because the 'shame of the alternative' was too awful. Even greater shame fell on anyone who fell pregnant without first being married. Countless tens of thousands of lonely, scared young women boarded ferries to Britain to obtain abortions. Countless tens of thousands more were secreted off so that no one would know they were pregnant, gave birth, and then often against their will gave up the baby to relatives or orphanages.

Young girls would turn up at convent doors surrendering their infant to nuns and disappear as quickly as they had come, hoping no one would know 'their shame'. For many it was an experience that would remain a dark secret, to haunt and torment them for the rest of their days.

What of the stigmatised children of these stigmatised parents. Well, for many of them their childhood didn't conform to any fluffy vision of birthdays and Santa and innocence-rather, a descent into a living hell. They were after all not as good as others, their family arrangements were wrong, they were the products of immorality and fecklessness, and should be treated accordingly.

As we now know, many of them suffered under regimes run by religious sadists. They suffered ritualised brutality and violence, sexual assaults and humiliation, and, as one ex Irish government minister recently acknowledged, everybody in power knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it. Even if inclined to do so, they feared 'interfering with the power of the church'.

Some of these children were even used for medical experimentation, sanctioned by the state. Some of those experimented on now believe that they are suffering ill health in adulthood as a result of the experiments. I say 'believe' as they do not legally have the right to full access to records of their times in these child prisons.

If Ireland was extreme it was not unique. Britain shipped thousands of 'unwanted kids' to Australia after the Second World War. Across the 'civilised world' such children were hidden, unheard, non-persons. For who would listen to the stigmatised, the illegitimate, the unwanted? The answer was very few; you wore your badge with shame, and carried that fact into your adult life.

One of the good things about the sheer weight of diversity of modern family arrangements is that attempts to stigmatise are unlikely to lead to a repeat of those past horrors.

That doesn't, however, diminish the disgust we should feel towards those who attempt to reinstate such stigmas. Whether the message is carried in the syrupy tones of Tony Blair or the nasty twang of William Hague, it is a message that belongs in the hall of infamy.

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