When the New Briton asked me to write an article outlining the social conservative opinion on family, I was at first flattered, then a little taken aback – what is the “social” conservative stance?
What demarcates it from the “Conservative” stance on family? And, though I was prepared to give the Party the benefit of the doubt, I have come to the conclusion (as so many have before me – I am hardly breaking ground with this) that the Conservative attitude to marriage is one of pure hostility.
Let us begin with the fundamentals. What, to the conservative, is family? It seems almost a redundant question, because not only is it a social reality, but it is the fundamental association at the heart of that society. Indeed, if we were to look to American philosopher Larry Siedentop’s magisterial Inventing the Individual, we will see that for much of history in the West, until as recently as the 5th century AD, family was society. The two were coterminous.
It is, according to Siedentop, one of the great victories of Christianism and the Western liberalism that it birthed that the individual was liberated from the social determination of a highly family-based society, but of course Christianity and the Western tradition has always placed great faith in the family, stressing obligation (from both parents and children) as the bond that holds it together.
For instance, David Hume’s essay “On the Origin of Government” that depicted the family as the fundamental social unit, that socialises us to learn to live with other people, while providing safety, shelter and security until we are mature enough to step out from beneath that shelter and into the world. Though the essay is brief, Hume’s opening words ought to be quoted in full:
“Man, born in a family, is compelled to maintain society, from necessity, from natural inclination, and from habit. The same creature, in his farther progress, is engaged to establish political society, in order to administer justice; without which there can be no peace among them, nor safety, nor mutual intercourse.”
And, as the eminent philosopher Professor Sir Roger Scruton has argued, family shares with the state the unique social reality that it is the only association which we take no decision to join. Of course, a person might immigrate, and two persons may
marry, but a couple does not make a family any more than a group of persons makes a government. The longevity of each is tied to the idea of generations, of lasting legacies, and a desire to create (as Hume says) an environment in which justice can be done.
From this social fact, the family is where we learn the importance of authority and obedience. The reason is because families, as much as they are non-consensual, are held together by the bonds of love. And, to me, love is what distinguishes the family from the state in terms of obligation – we are obliged to follow the law, but on what ground? Most of us did not choose to live in the states we do, and states do not provide us with a distinct reason to follow their laws.
Rather, that question actually puts the cart before the horse. We follow the law, because we learn to accept authority from our parents. As I say, love holds families together, and it is given (by both children and parents) unconditionally: a parent feels instinctually driven to look after its child, through both biological and moral reasons, recognising the distinctively helpless nature of a child; can a state say the same? Does a state love its citizens? Of course it doesn’t – a state is faceless, like an automaton driven by the whirring cogs of bureaucracy with only a passive image to hide that machinery. It does not have the humanity of monarchy or aristocracy to made it congenial to the citizenry.
And this bond of love makes the sensible child aware of his helplessness. If it weren’t for his parents, he would be utterly alone, and more likely than not succumb to the dangers of the world. From this recognition, a child learns that the limits to his behaviour are not imposed out of spite, malice or a desire to control him, but to protect him. Sure, some of them might be “irrational” – but so what? They are not consciously guided, but the product of a slow evolution from generations of experience, like a beaten path through a dense forest.
Of course, when I say unconditional love, I do not mean unconditional in that wrong behaviour goes unpunished. Instead, what is unconditional is the association inherent in family: what Professor Scruton has referred to as the “pre-political we”, the desire to remain in association despite conflict, springs from this familial love. When we transgress our parents, they punish us, but with an eye to retribution, so that we may learn the other value of love – forgiveness. And by learning of forgiveness, we grow as morally autonomous beings, and progress from childhood to adulthood.
As the state cannot love, the state cannot forgive. This is why all of political life cannot be merely the vast array of individuals on one side, and the state on the other;
rather, the interlocking, mediating world of civil association between the two must exist, so it can do that which the state cannot – forgive.
Finally, at the crux of this most basic association, is the institution of marriage. I would go so far as the say that marriage is the most powerful institution in the history of the West. Marriage cements all that I have talked about thus far, as a sphere of stability in which love can grow, be understood and replicated by children. Marriage, it must be said, is not an institution for the couple – of course, it reaffirms and amplifies the love they feel for one another – but its purpose is the safety of children. After all, a family only truly exists when two becomes three, or four, or more.
Marriage is not a contract – contractual arrangements, at their core, involve a conclusion. Consider contracts in business: they specify the parties involved, the agreement of service, and the conclusion of those services. It’s all very cold, isn’t it? Very scientific. Marriage is not this; marriage is poetic, beautiful, emotional and irrational. Marriage is a solemn vow, a statement made in the eyes of God, to give ourselves entirely to the other, and the others yet to come. In this understanding of marriage, it is not a contract, as there is no conclusion to the association; the “parties” do not separate at the “conclusion of their services”, whatever they might be.
The War on the Family
Andrew Tattenborn for the Burkean has recently written a fantastic article1 on the new changes to Divorce Law that has removed the concept of fault. To quote Tattenborn’s article, “the government, following a consultation, intended to abolish the concept of fault in divorce and let either party walk out of a marriage on twenty-six weeks’ notice whether the other party liked it or not”, and likened this act to making marriage weaker “than a phone contract”.
Tattenborn is right, obviously. But he does not go far enough; marriage is not weaker than a phone contract, because it is no longer a contract at all. As I specify above, the conclusion of contracts rest on the fulfilment of services, or the inability to fulfil them. This, implicitly, recognises the significance of fault; if the contract cannot be fulfilled, it is because one of the parties is at fault. By removing fault from the institution of marriage, the government has fundamentally altered the nature of marriage entirely; where before it was a vow that was mutilated into a contract, now it is simply nothing but words. And, as the postmodernists like to tell us, words have no meaning.
So, when the core institution of the family is under threat, what can be done to protect it? The most dangerous thing now, though, is the “Conservative Party” does not seem to be asking that question. Instead, it seems to be asking the question, “does it need protecting at all?”
As contentious as it is to say, another clear example of this contempt held for the institution of family is the new LGBT education reforms. I personally believe the concept of sex education foolish and ideological in any form, and do not object to the content of this education itself. I object to the education, the age and, most importantly, the compulsory nature.
Primary school is not the right time for teaching children anything to do with relationships. They are still learning to understand friendship as a concept, never mind romantic love – or, more importantly, physical love for that matter. And by making it compulsory, and removing the opportunity for parents to reassert their authority at all over such education, the sovereignty of that institution is eroded further.
Modern liberals like to think they are heroically tackling Karl Popper’s famous conundrum, of “how to tolerate the intolerant”, bravely solving that question so we may enter a new and enlightened age. I find the truth is closer to a practice of Rousseau’s chilling maxim: that some people must be “forced to be free”.
Free from what? Simply, free from our own prejudices.
And of course, the great irony of the “No Outsiders” programme is that it is still creating outsiders, merely of a different type – religious minorities. The clash between the two liberal obsessions of multiculturalism and LGBT rights was inevitable to anyone watching, even those at the fringes, yet the liberal clique recoiled in horror when Muslim parents wanted to – quite rightly – assert their right to remove their children from this education.
I imagine some will label me a “homophobe” for expressing these views, though my objections do not come from some deep-seated hatred of homosexuals – in fact, I have never hated LGBT individuals, a concept liberals seem to find inconvenient. Blame instead my prudishness. I grew up and was educated without these “enlightening” reforms – and so was every single person reading this article. Does modern Britain hate gay people? On the contrary – we are becoming more accepting as time moves on, and not because of any indoctrination at childhood, but because of the simple fact of lived reality.
But all the moral disagreements over LGBT education aside, the war on the institution lies in that what I have discussed as the compulsory nature of the education, and the institutionalised inability of parents to remove their child from these lessons. We apparently no longer have any confidence in parents to educate their children; what if the parents are, as the figures seem to indicate, either passive on, or supportive of the issue of LGBT rights?
I do not think the institution of the family can withstand much more. What, indeed, is the purpose of marriage now? If it can be entered into and withdrawn from at whim, and parents are no longer needed for the education and safety of children, how long can the belief in the institution stand, if at all?