One of the strangest things about modern British politics is its unfriendliness towards the conventional family. I only realised this recently, while writing a book about the value divides in British society.
The thesis of the book in three sentences is this. A minority group of the highly educated and mobile who value autonomy and openness – I call them Anywheres – have recently come to dominate our economy and society. There is also a larger but much less influential group – I call them Somewheres – who are more rooted and less well educated, who value security and familiarity, and are more connected to group identities than Anywheres. This latter group has come to feel excluded from the public space, which has destabilised our politics and led to Brexit.
The value story is, of course, more complex, with many varieties of Anywheres and Somewheres, and a large group of Inbetweeners. But so far, so unsurprising. The modern world has been designed by and for Anywheres – the knowledge economy, the expansion of higher education, the rapid social change represented by mass immigration and a much more open economy. But there is another area of life that neatly exemplifies Anywhere hegemony: family and gender policy.
I did not expect to find this: for all of my life women’s equality has been part of the common sense of my social circles; I always dated successful professional women (and later married one). Yet when I studied the drift of recent policy I was surprised to find how opposed to domesticity it had become. At the higher professional end, policy is about equality at work and minimising the child “penalty”. At the lower income and single mother end, it is about providing the support to enable women to work as much as possible, thereby contributing to household income and Treasury coffers.
This ambivalence about the family reflects the decline of religious feeling and of traditional female altruism, as well as the increasing economisation of public life. Orthodox feminists and orthodox economists tend to collude in a view of the family as a place of little value – for the economists because it does not contribute to GDP, for the feminists because it prevents women from contributing their full potential in the only sphere that matters: the male-dominated public sphere.
Policy is increasingly driven by the assumption that the gender division of labour should not merely be modified but transcended altogether: men and women are not only equal, it is assumed, but have exactly the same priorities.
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