Re: U.N. report says Britain worst place for childrenFeb 15th, 2007
15th February 2007
19th Century London street children huddle together for warmth and safety.
Two weeks ago, the all-knowing Economist magazine informed us that we have enjoyed 'a period of extraordinary prosperity'.
Fewer children and pensioners live in poverty than was the case ten years ago, and crime is 'broadly down'. We have never had it so good.
A fortnight later, a United Nations report tells a very different story. British children are the worst off among the world's richest nations in terms of family breakdown, drink, drugs, teenage sex - almost anything you care to mention.
We might be suspicious of such generalisations if they did not in large measure confirm our own experience and observations.
If you look at society through the prism of material wellbeing, as the Economist tends to, you don't see the whole picture.
The same might be said of the Government, which has responded to the United Nations report by complaining that its data are several years out of date.
It asserts that many children have "been lifted out of poverty" in the past few years, and that things are better than the report says they are. Doesn't this betray an alarmingly superficial understanding of the problems we face?
Of course poverty should be eradicated, but, if it ever is, there will still be unhappy children, almost certainly more than in many poorer countries.
After all, in absolute terms even the very poor in Britain are incomparably richer than they were 50 years ago, and yet the problems which the report suggests have made our children unhappier have multiplied many times.
There is something much deeper going on here, something which goes back far beyond the advent of New Labour or the Thatcherite years. It has to do with the family as it has evolved in Britain over the past two or three hundred years.
Anyone who has visited continental Europe, from the Protestant north to the Catholic south, knows that in almost all these countries the family remains a stronger and more resilient unit than it does in Britain.
In much of the Continent, for example, the old are often looked after at home, rather than being shunted into 'care homes', as they are in modern Britain.
Young children are much more often taken to restaurants and cafes by their parents, even during the evening. When they grow older, they are likely to stay longer in the family home than is the case in Britain, where the usual custom is to turf them out as soon as possible.
No doubt the image of the happy extended family on the Continent is something of a myth - but only something of one. Family ties are usually much stronger there. There is much to suggest that Europeans generally like and value children more than we do.
A French visitor to the grand house of Chatsworth at the end of the 18th century was appalled by the neglected state of the children, who, despite being the offspring of the enormously rich Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, wore dirty clothes, lived in draughty attic rooms, were seldom fed and rarely saw their parents.
Until recently, the upper classes preferred their children to be brought up by nannies. They, and those members of the middle classes who aped them, couldn't wait to pack off the little blighters at eight to preparatory school, leaving the tiresome business of bringing them up to others.
Today's Telegraph (based on Hogarth's 1751 print of the London Gin Craze when the city's poor became hugely addicted to the drink, leading to such cases as drunken women dropping their babies.)
From the mid 19th century - under the influence of the Church, the example of Queen Victoria and the Royal Family, and sentimental evocations of family life by authors such as Charles Dickens - the respectable middle classes, followed by the working class, developed a more indulgent attitude towards children.
Since the Sixties, though, Leftist middle-class intellectuals have persistently decried the family, asking us to believe that, far from being the bedrock of society, it is the nursery of many of its ills.
Far more than their counterparts in Europe, they have denigrated the institution of marriage, and contended that one parent is just as good as two.
Their arguments have infected governments of both hues, which, again unlike most in Europe, have steadily withdrawn from families most of the legal and fiscal privileges they once enjoyed.
Yet surely all but the most blinkered ideologue can now acknowledge a link between family breakdown and the scourges which the United Nations report says are more prevalent in Britain than in any other rich country.
Better education and less poverty, indispensable though they are, will not make children feel more loved.
Tight, loving families, in which discipline is exercised moderately but firmly, are more likely to produce children who are happier, as well as being less prone to take refuge in binge drinking, drugs and promiscuous teenage sexual relationships.
This point seems so obvious than one hesitates to make it, yet even now there are plenty of people who think that government - through the provision of better education and wider distribution of resources - can solve these problems. It can't. It can create a more felicitous framework in which improvement is possible.
For example, it can, and should, stop penalising married couples through the tax system and then, wonder of wonders, even introduce fiscal incentives to make family life more attractive.
All this would be very useful, but it is going to take more than that to move us from the model of fragmenting family life in this country, where members of a family sit down to share a meal less often than they do in other European countries, towards the Continental model. Government can help, but it cannot force people to adopt new values.
Our history has taken us very far from our Continental counterparts. In Catholic Europe, the Church even now remains a bulwark of the family.
Here, the Church has long deserted the field of battle, and does not presume to offer much advice, far less exhortation.
The Tories' vision of small, independent charities helping young people in place of the monolithic Welfare State is an attractive one, though not even its most enthusiastic supporters would pretend that it is a cure for all the ills which the United Nations report dwells on.
There are no instant, all-purpose solutions. Perhaps we should derive some comfort from the thought that, despite everything, there are millions of loving families whose parents strive to do their best for their children, who both work hard to provide for them and give them the time and care they need.
Many mothers, though, feel driven by economic pressures to go out to work when their first instinct would be to stay at home and look after their young children.
Nor should we forget that there are some couples in this country whose first thought is not to consign aged parents to the care of strangers when they could look after them themselves.
What is surely clear, even if the Economist cannot grasp it, is that much greater national wealth has not reduced the difficulties which many families and children face, or made them happier.
Rather the opposite, in fact. Any government that believes the solution simply lies in doling out greater resources will be bound to fail.