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Happy Families

September 28, 2013

I had promised myself that I wouldn’t indulge in negative rants. My advice to myself is that when I encounter something that offends me, I should try to find the converse, and then figure out some constructive way to make it happen – if only, usually, on a personal or small scale. No point raging about national or global phenomena at a theoretical level.


I do advise people that a good time to write is when they are so moved by something that the  post writes itself. So long as they take a little time to reflect and edit afterwards.

My spark came from the twitter discussion this morning about Conservative party proposals for a tax allowance for married couples.

[BTW. People who know me also know that I’m a-party-political. If you can figure out which Party my beliefs and actions consistently map onto – and why I should join one of them – please let me know. They also know that I think people can/do contribute to civic society in all sorts of ways beyond paying tax… through the *way* they do their work, live their lives and use their spare time. I also believe that finding more opportunities to channel those *ways* into practical/communal activity could reduce taxation, create community cohesion, and give individuals more fulfillment – neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Crucially this means seeing each other as ‘us’ and not as ‘other people’. It should be the aim of every politician to find and cultivate that ‘us’.] 

As to the policy itself, my wife and I would benefit, modestly. But I can’t see any clear cut case for tinkering with the taxation system in this way – not least because it should be as simple as possible. Society, and the economy, are complex – and give rise to complex interactions. [Yes – I know that’s obvious]. It’s also the case that people are getting harder and harder to ‘segment’ in terms of their combined economic, employment, family, health, educational and other circumstances. I know that there are stronger correlations for some groups – and that some analyses of ‘the welfare state’ congregate around ‘multiple indicators’ of dependence, exclusion or non-participation in society.

But I don’t see anything to persuade me that the promotion of marriage, per se, will have an impact on society, or on those critiqued groups in particular, which merits the tinkering.

So I’m left concluding [feel free to congratulate me on my new worldliness] that the motivation is ideological – including intra-party deal-making – or a clumsy bribe. It also persuades me that no-one in this arena is interested in the analysis of complex social and economic systems, hard honest data, or creative and innovative thinking. [And you can talk about ‘nudging’ all you like – I’ve blogged before about how I feel about paternalistic nudges.]


Well – that brings me to what I want to rant about…  because none of the above was a rant.


The word “Families” and the way in which it is used by all the major political parties in this country. The Conservatives appeared to want to appropriate it – describing how “Families” have been hit by economic crises and various species of inflation.  Labour, seemingly terrified that this will happen, have proved equally keen to empathise with “families suffering under this Coalition government”.

The media, to my horror, seem to reproduce this language in reports drawn from party press releases and [9 times out of 10] with no pause to reflect on this use of language. Because “Families” here is almost always being used to mean – ‘people’, ‘most ordinary people’ or ‘people like you and me’. It’s not usually being used to address a specific category [if one could actually be found to stand up at a simple level] in the way that policy might approach ‘teenagers’, ‘pensioners’, ‘people with long-term illnesses’, ‘part-time workers’, etc, etc, etc. “Families” is far too broad to function as an analytical or explanatory entity – and they know it is. And so do the media – who nonetheless seem to treat “Families” as a self-evident natural kind – hence one that all viewers, listeners and readers will recognise.

I live in a family unit – if that’s what they mean. I share a house with my wife and two teenage children. We pool our income, share our shelter and resources, and we look after each other. We are dealt with, for many purposes, as a single unit. I live in a family unit because I happen to have chosen to share the last 30 years with one person, to have children with them, and to live with them all.

Similarly I grew up in a family unit, which existed for many of the same reasons.

I’m also, in a more basic sense, a member of a family because I have parents, grandparents and other more distant genetic relatives – as we all do.

But when politicians use “Family” in the contexts they have recently, they are loading it with connotations of normality, inclusiveness [not like those “other people”], and virtue – such as the Conservatives’ variations on “decent, hard-working, families”. As I say, it’s meant to imply, in a fuzzy lets-not-analyse-it-too-closely way, people like us, people who share our way of life, people we think are deserving of support.

Why is this not challenged more often – on simple grounds of clarity and meaning, let alone fairness or ideology?

Politicians seem to be locked in a mutual-hostage consensus about it. Nobody got sacked for saying they support ‘families’.

I end up wondering if there are more people in family ‘families’ than other people – that this is simply a code for the majority. I doubt it – but I’d love to see the numbers. Are pensioner couples ‘families’ – or does it depend on whether they have children and grandchildren, or how near them they live, or how often they see them. Is an absent parent in a family – if they are still ‘financially connected’ or not? Are parents and adult kids ‘families’ if they live apart but the parents contribute to university fees and maintenance?

I suspect that, over the population as a whole, people who identify themselves with ‘Families’, or would go along with it as a meaningful concept/group, are either in the minority, or it’s a close-run thing.

So I have two conclusions.

1.’The Family’ is emblematic of a bundle of ideology, which probably no-longer stands up to close analysis, but which the Conservative Party still holds onto in preference to doing that analysis or coping with the consequential need to re-group and re-state values in the face of a changed and changing world. But equally one which Labour, or the Lib Dems, are too afraid to deconstruct because…

2. Some sophisticated analysis of demography and voting patterns suggests that a large proportion of voters in the crucial ‘swing seats’ also adhere to the un-examined notion of ‘Families’, and believe it applies to them and to people with whom they have common cause.

Outside of those possibilities I can’t think of any reason for this dim mantra of “Families, families, families” – even though I’m in one. The fact that my family is a family is probably one of the least useful ways to understand the four of us, or to give us ways to participate better in society and economy.

[BTW – again, for point 2, feel free to ironically congratulate me on my new-found worldliness].

So I assume that  tax allowances for ‘the married’ is in the service of ‘The Family’ for those two reasons. I’ve heard the post hoc rationalisation for marriage as something that contributes to all kinds of ‘living right’. It’s based on a particular sub-set, or ideal model, of marriages. For every one of those we can all think of marriages which are ‘net negative’ and of correspondingly positive relationships and attitudes where no marriage is present. Go on – show me the data… or what supporting data might even look like.

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