Our man in Holyrood

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Tommy Sheridan's decision to be a 'socialist dad' reflects society's melancholy view of parenting as a problem, says Stuart Waiton.

Following a debate I was involved in this month on Newsnight Scotland about "the problem of parenting", I found myself discussing Graham Green's Our Man in Havana at my book club. Published in 1958, this classic novel depicts a father, Wormold, who "believes in nothing". A man who wouldn't "kill for my country . . . for capitalism or communism . . . or the welfare state", and is left only to retreat into his role as the parent of his daughter, Milly.

This retreat into parenting is the only meaning Wormold can find to his life, but this is no celebration of the feminine side of man, or of the wonders of parenthood, but rather a melancholy portrayal of a man retreating from society and the world of politics, where all that is left is a relationship with a child.

How different this portrayal is from today's obsession with family life, where the retreat into your private life is held up as one of the most creative things a man or woman can do.

Take Tommy Sheridan's resignation from the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party, which he explained was because he wanted to become a "socialist dad". Whether this was the real reason is not important. What is important is that a leader of a political party felt that this justification would be seen as a positive endorsement of his caring character, rather than an abdication of responsibility.

Tony Blair has made similar pronouncements about parenting when he informed an audience of young people that being a father was the most difficult job he had.

This brings us back to the Newsnight debate that was framed around recent research which found that the majority of adults believe parenting is more difficult today than in the past. Discussing this question before the show the leader of the pensioners' party, John Swinburne, made the point to me that compared with world wars, disease and poverty, parents have never had it so good.

Yet despite this, parenting has never appeared to be more problematic, not because of the objective material difficulties we face but precisely because it has become an area of political and professional contestation.

"Parenting", the verbal noun, has existed for over 40 years and has grown with the professionalisation of family life. Whereas in the past, looking after children was understood to be a relatively straightforward affair, today parents face a barrage of "advice and information" on just about every aspect of a child's life.

Like Wormold, with little to engage us in society or the world of politics, we too appear to have turned inwards towards the family as a "haven in a heartless world". However, whereas in Wormold's day, when he was left to bring up his daughter as he saw fit, today's politicians and professionals have themselves retreated from the public world and see their role as resolving society's problems through the family.

When Margaret Thatcher argued that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and the family, few people would have believed that within a generation her "enemy within" would be celebrating the role of the "socialist dad".

Unfortunately, the preoccupation with parenting by politicians and professionals appears to be only helping to undermine parents' confidence in their own ability to parent and we now understand parenting to be the "hardest job in the world".

In Our Man in Havana, Greene perceptively portrays Wormold not only as a man lacking social engagement, but equally as a parent unable to direct the life of his daughter - Wormold finds that it is his daughter who runs his life. Having given up on any social values or beliefs, Wormold finds that he lacks the authority or will.

Today politicians are helping to create Wormold's world where the only social relationship left is that between an adult and a child, and the highest achievement for any adult is to be a good parent. Rather than creating a responsible society, this development reflects the infantilisation of adulthood.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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