Back to Basics New Labour style

13th November 1998 at 00:00
I'll never forget my wedding day. I wore blue and my wife wore a silver flapper-style dress. The venue was the extraordinary Hackney Town Hall, which looks like one of those buildings Hitler planned for Berlin for after he'd won the war. Photographs of the occasion show me to have a somewhat strained smile but I got through it all right until I had to sign the legal document.

I was fine but my hand became so shaky that it couldn't write its owner's name. The squiggly indeterminate scrawl I produced reminded me of something.

Can you still buy Jackdaw folders? I had a Jackdaw folder about the Gunpowder Plot and among the facsimile historical documents was the signature of Guido Fawkes appended to his confession, which he wrote after several days on the rack and shortly before having still worse things done to him. My signature looked like that.

At this point in the ceremony - according to Supporting Families, the Government's new Green Paper - the newly retrained registrar would offer us counselling, though whether this would be in the form of a few words of advice about listening and maintaining a sense of humour or whether it would be a full-scale treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder has not yet been fully codified.

The notion of a local council bureaucrat offering us advice on marriage while our children were running around everywhere and our mothers were taking photographs of the scene from every angle might be a good subject for a Steve Bell cartoon. And if registrars can be retrained as counsellors, then why not other state employees. At the post office counter, for example? "Do you really want to send that parcel, or is it out of a sense of obligation?" Or while collecting your MBE:"Before awarding this to you, I would like to warn you that tomorrow you are likely to experience a sense of anti-climax."

It's tempting to dismiss the Green Paper solely because of the nebulousness of its language. Its aim is to place "families at the heart of our society and the basis of our future as a society". Is that an aim? Is it anything?

Still, the Government is responding to concerns that most of us at least can recognise in that contested area where the family meets society. These concerns might include the divorce epidemic, the fact that there is currently one abortion for every four births, and a fact that is obvious to anybody with experience of state schools, especially inner-city primaries, that a dispossessed minority of children have problems at home that disable them from the beginning. But, as teachers could tell politicians, it is easy to identify problems and exceedingly difficult to intervene effectively at home.

I happen to believe, along with the Pope and Melanie Phillips, that British society would be better if everybody lived in a happy, stable family, but then I also believe that Nicaragua would be in a better state if Hurricane Mitch had hit the central American coast further south.

The Government has designated the family a good thing in itself, and so many of the Green Paper's proposals involve helplines, advice, counsellors and health visitors in order to prop it up. More than this, ministers have also pronounced on what an acceptable marriage ought to be. Jack Straw came out (if one can use that expression) against gay adoptions and lesbian women who conceive through in-vitro fertilisation and said that he didn't want to see children being "treated as trophies" (this from a politician).

Speaking at the south London headquarters of a parents' advice group, Straw continued: "I've been divorced myself. I was raised by a single parent with mother bringing up the five of us. So I'm not hectoring single parents who on the whole do an extremely good job in very difficult circumstances. However the evidence is that children are best brought up where you have two natural parents and it is more likely to be a stable family if they are married. "

In a new variation on Marx's dictum, the Back to Basics episode is occurring twice, the first time as farce, the second time as farce too. If the original launch of the Green Paper hadn't been postponed, it would have coincided neatly with the Ron Davies affair. And as Davies himself told the House of Commons, not all children benefit from living in "stable" families.

Does none of this stop them in their tracks? The Cabinet is crammed with gays, divorced MPs, adulterers, step-parents and doubtless other colours of the rainbow. This is the way we live now.

The specific proposals are the best. If they can make the Child Support Agency work, that will be a triumph. My own belief is that a massive expansion in sex education would do more for the family than any other measure.

Meanwhile, if the Government would like to improve my own family life, they can send a counsellor round to do our ironing. That would do more than anything else to save my marriage.

Journalist Sean French writes novels with his wife, Nicci Gerrard, published under the name Nicci French Document of the Week, page 21

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