So David Cameron wants us all to hate what he calls 'runaway fathers'. Well thanks for that Dave, but like most people I'm perfectly capable of deciding for myself who I think should be "stigmatised" have "the full force of shame heaped upon them". Moreover, not only is the comparison between absent fathers and drink-drivers completely absurd, his over-simplification of the wider issues around breakups, child access and maintenance does an injustice to many people while skating over some of the nuances of the subject.
Of course, having a child and then disappearing from sight is a highly irresponsible thing to do, but then the way that Cameron speaks suggests that this single trademark narrative broadly covers all instances where a father does not see his child anymore. I've met many who were struggling to get official access sorted through the courts, or upon being granted it were finding the child's mother making the actual meeting of father and child increasingly difficult. One of the other traps which Dave has fallen into here is leaving the impression that these situations are, without exception, the fault of the man.
This is clearly not true - there are unfit and absent parents of both genders, and would it not enhance the discussion if we simply talked about parents instead of singling out one sex or the other? You may well point out that Sunday was Father's Day, so presumably Dave will be talking about 'manipulative mothers', who poison their kids' minds against Daddy next March? No he won't? Well thank fuck for that...
There are legal adults who are barely capable of looking after themselves and therefore should probably not have children. Sometimes it is surely no bad thing that a parent who is an alcoholic, a drug addict, an abuser or predisposed to violence is not a major part of a child's life? Although the statistics suggest this is not the general trend, there will be occasions where one parent is preferable to two, or the two biological parents anyway. Nearly all lone parents of course do the best that they can, and many are indeed "heroic" as Dave puts it. However, this applies to single fathers as much as it does to mothers, and I speak as someone whose parents split and whose father fled the scene, refusing to pay towards the upkeep of his 13-year old daughter.
However, this was not the most interesting aspect of Cameron's Daily Telegraph piece. The line that really caught my eye regarded his intention to "recognise marriage in the tax system so as a country we show we value commitment". I was never convinced that this particular project in social engineering had been shelved, despite the strong opposition to it by Dave's Liberal Democrat coalition partners. However, it is immensely sad to see it's re-emergence nonetheless. There are two major reasons why such a policy is dangerously flawed, namely the disturbing anomalies it will create and the societal pressures that will be fed by it.
The plan in itself is bullshit gesture politics at its worst - the notion that people would get married and stay together for the sake of £3 a week travels far beyond the realms of the merely ridiculous and enters "what you smokin?" territory. However, more importantly, it creates some undesirable and manifestly unfair fiscal situations. If you think of a tax break or benefit as a pot of money, it is always worth asking:- who is walking up to the pot, dropping a few pounds in and then walking away so somebody else can take it? This invariably helps in assessing whether or not any redistribution of taxpayers' cash is fair or not.
Under Cameron's arrangement, single people on a low income will be putting money in and then walking away so middle class married couples can take it. Meanwhile, someone who battered or abused their spouse then moved on to marry their next victim stands to benefit from a tax break, while the injured party in the first relationship (who could be a woman living in a refuge or a man who just wants to be left alone) will be left picking up the tab. I struggle to see how by the definition of any sane person either of these instances represent fair and just outcomes, and how the 'battered spouse' example in particular 'rewards' the 'right' behaviour? This serves to illustrate that the law of unintended consequences never fails to bite state interference on the arse.
That Dave apparently believes that all married couples should try to stay together, regardless of how bad things get, is equally insane. How is growing up in a household blighted by (for example) addiction or violence in any way beneficial to a child? When I was an early teenager, the thing that always struck me was that people my age were far more perceptive than adults actually gave us credit for. We knew when something was fucked up and wholly destructive, and when it would clearly be in the best interests of all parties for the circus to end. If this tax break is intended as a statement in favour of continuing marriage under any circumstances, then it also serves as an inadvertent green light to Carry on Warping - ie subjecting some children to further damage and unnecessary mental scarring.
What this also does is feed the horrible societal pressures that tell young people what they should want from their lives. Of course the Tories' pet hate in the past was homosexuality, best typified by the thoroughly bigoted Section 28, passed in 1988. This is without doubt the best (or worst) example of an Act of Parliament which played on the Tories' socially statist instincts of saying "this lifestyle = good - that lifestyle = bad". In addition, it fed on the absurd notion that someone's 14 year old son, upon being informed that some men liked men and there was nothing wrong with that, would suddenly be overcome by the urge to dip into a public toilet on the way home from school - in short it was ridiculous and fascistic bollocks driven by bigotry and hatred alone.
Cameron's public apology for Section 28 at last year's Pride festival (where he promised that tax breaks would also apply to civil partnerships) clearly owed far more to political expediency than it did to any sense that these instincts had waned if this pledge is anything to go by. It's just that the target has changed, and now the unmarried individual (possibly a previous victim of domestic abuse at the hands of a partner) finds him or herself as the scum of the myopia that is the Tory earth. Anyone who does not express a particular wish to go down the route of marriage, two kids, a dog and a lawnmower must have something wrong with them, they must be selfish and irresponsible, and therefore they must be penalised by the tax system in order to reward those who made the 'correct' decision.
That's why I always struggle to get too enthusiastic about young adults in my acquaintance who announce that it is their turn to tie the knot. Of course, I'm not 'anti-marriage', a brainless smear that people supporting personal choice on this issue invariably have to endure. It's just that somewhere at the back of my head there's always this nagging voice asking, "who's leaned on them and told them this is 'the right thing to do'?" When you're dealing with those who maybe have a few more miles on the clock, you can at least be assured that in all likelihood they possessed the confidence to decide for themselves that this was what they wanted. As a result, I tend to find it a lot easier to express genuine happiness for someone in that situation.
My biggest fear regarding 'special status for marriage and civil partnerships' is that it will burden many young people with the sense that this is the path which your life should follow. By giving one lifestyle choice the state-sponsored mark of superiority, all others become distinctly inferior by definition, and a hierarchy of relationships will naturally play on the minds of young adults, teenagers and (most depressingly) their parents. Cameron clearly wants this to ripple through society and put enormous strain on people to do the right thing, but should be careful what he wishes for.
Increasing the number of people manipulated or pressured into entering marriages and raising families that deep down they never wanted in the first place is both an affront to the notion of personal choice and in policy terms, a recipe for disaster. Higher levels of divorce and family breakup are likely long-term consequences of such action, and as a result, so is a rise in the number of absent or runaway parents. Given that this is a doomsday scenario as far as Cameron is concerned, his proposal to give special tax status to marriage can hardly be considered the work of joined up government, can it?