On Monday, David Cameron made one of his most important speeches of the year. It is not about the tragic events in the Middle East or our fast-recovering economy, or even about Europe. It is about family breakdown.
The scale of this problem is enormous. As the Government’s troubled families programme has confirmed, the cost to the taxpayer of this crisis is probably in the region of £50 billion a year, or £2,000 per household. Beyond that colossal sum lies the unquantifiable human misery of broken relationships, abandoned children and shattered kinship bonds.
Family breakdown and, in particular, the decline of marriage as the foundation stone of our society, are commonly assumed to be a concern of those who are out of touch with the modern world. That is not our experience when listening to constituents.
As One Nation Tories, we are concerned that the social fabric of our country, one of its greatest strengths, is being steadily eroded by our failure to appreciate that social capital – the ties that bind parents and children, the younger generation with the old, and our communities – is even more important than financial capital. Indeed, most people rate an ordered and stable community and wider society even more highly than our constant quest for greater prosperity.
We also believe that the Conservative Party, at its best when it puts the good of all the nation above sectional interests, will stand a far better chance of winning the election next year if it embarks on a mission to restore stability across society.
To be fair to the Prime Minister, he sensed as much in the run-up to the 2010 election when he made the Big Society the centrepiece of his appeal to the nation. Although this concept needs clearer articulation, it contains the germ of a great truth.
The state cannot do everything. It is not and never will be a surrogate family. After the ravages of the Labour recession and with the continuing need for big reductions in public spending, it has even less chance of repairing or patching up deep-seated social ills.
The answer lies in our own hands – as parents, friends, neighbours, family members, and volunteers – as we seek to build stronger communities capable of caring for the weaker and more vulnerable of our fellow citizens and offering hope and opportunity to the young and promoting the wellbeing of all.
This is particularly relevant to the debate about long-term care of the old as growing numbers of pensioners enter their declining years without the support of grown-up children and grandchildren. At the heart of building a stronger society, more capable of withstanding future shocks, be they economic or the direct acts of criminals, terrorists or enemies, lies the family. And the foundation stone of the family is the commitment that marriage brings.
The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), the think tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, a decade ago, has done more than anyone to promote marriage and emphasise its vital contribution to family stability and the healthy development of children.
But as its report last month demonstrates, the modern British family is teetering on the brink of extinction. Half of children starting school at five are from broken homes; one million children lose contact with their grandparents because of separation or divorce; the average 15-year-old is more likely to have a smart-phone at home than a father; and unless action is taken, by 2020 half of the pupils sitting GCSEs will come from broken homes.
In addition, the pernicious culture of what the CSJ calls “disposable dads” means that one million children are growing up without meaningful contact with their fathers. Moreover, children from broken homes do far less well at school and are far more likely to turn to crime and drugs than those from married families.
Even worse, we are now grappling with a “marriage gap” in which children from the poorest homes are seven times more likely to be living with a single parent than those from the wealthiest backgrounds. In some deprived neighbourhoods, three quarters of the children are brought up in single-parent families.
This is a great social injustice. We know that marriage confers great benefits on both the adults involved and their children; and we know that the better-off marry and so preserve their general wellbeing. Yet, despite this manifest and damaging social divide, we do precious little to help. Think of the outcry if only the affluent could obtain health care and education. Yet we tolerate arrangements that disadvantage the poor just as much as if they were denied basic public services.
While Britain can withstand economic shocks such as the banking crisis and recession, social stability, once destroyed, is far harder to recreate. For that reason, we and a number of like-minded centre-ground Conservative MPs have convened a Commission on Social Capital, which will report shortly. We want the party to put both economic and social stability at the heart of its manifesto next year.
This means having the courage not only to state that stable families and marriage are a major part of the glue that holds our society together but also to demonstrate through our policies and actions that we believe it.