Is it Time to Put the Family at the Heart of the Welfare State?

Posted on November 1, 2010

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The Family: Heart of the Nation

If there is something we have learnt from recent elections in the UK it is that the working classes have become increasingly alienated from political life. Elections in 2009 saw two MEPs elected for the British National Party (BNP), not because of a notable increase in their support, but due to a collapse in the Labour vote. When discussing the BNP and its predecessor, the National Front, the media generally are interested only in their inflammatory views on race and immigration. Yet something important is often missed. Why has the BNP consistently supported nationalisation of certain industries and increases in certain welfare budgets on the one hand, and advocated the protection of certain traditional family values on the other? Let us accept for the sake of argument the accusation that they are nothing but shameless opportunists preying on the concerns of working people. If that is true, it tells us two things. Firstly, the working classes are perceived to have a strong commitment to traditional family structures, and are distressed by the anti-family agenda pursued by recent governments. If not, why prey on non-existent concerns? Secondly, parties which were founded to provide representation for the working class and who now eschew the family in favour of the ‘permissive society’ are betraying their wonted constituents.

Evidence from some electoral results also suggests that MPs who combine strong support for the welfare state with robust defence of family values are well-liked. Take Tim Farron, who has reduced Labour’s share of the vote from a respectable 20% to a humiliating 2.2% in his Cumbria constituency. It is perhaps no coincidence that he is both a member of the Beveridge Group and one of the few Liberal Democrat MPs to present a socially conservative voting record. If more MPs from the left were willing to stick their heads above the trench and risk the cries of ‘homophobe’ and ‘misogynist’ from the media, they might find themselves strangely popular.

There is a false concept of liberty motivating the economic ideology of some conservatives. Friedrich Hayek once argued that a climber trapped in a crevasse is ‘free’ because he is not hindered by the will of another agent. As one commentator observed, this means that ‘Victorian workers were not unfree when the impersonal compulsion of the market kept them toiling fourteen hours a day in the cotton-mills; they lost their freedom when Lord Shaftesbury’s legislation cut their hours to ten. For then they became subject to political will rather than to market forces.’ Perversely, many on the left accept this same concept of liberty in social matters when they fail to recognise the extent to which people can become ensnared in cycles of immoral and destructive behaviour under the influence of a permissive culture. On both left and right, a concern for the common good of society has given way to an unfettered individualism. Differences lie for the most part only in its manifestation – economic or social.

Yet, the concept of the Welfare State, as opposed to the reality we live with, affirms the fundamental role of the state in promoting ‘the good life’. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines the Welfare State as a ‘concept of government in which the State plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens’. All the evidence suggests that there is nothing more crucial to the economic and social well-being of the individual and of the community than strong, stable families built on the lifelong union of one man and one woman.

Now that many Conservative MPs have accepted the anti-family agenda of the previous government, there is a unique opportunity for one of the other main parties to take up anew both the representation of the working class, and the defence of the traditional family unit (even if, to date, they have shown themselves rather slow on the uptake). A vacancy exists for political leaders who are brave enough to argue that there is such a thing as society, that it can only function if there are certain moral restraints on undesirable behaviour, and that true freedom, in both the economic and social spheres, is not simply the absence of external constraints, but the ability to choose the good life.

(Photo credit: CC: © German Federal Archive. No endorsement implied.)

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