Mayor of Simpleton: the family breakdown myth

5:05 pm - May 27th 2008

by Unity    

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A quick visit to the UK’s premium source of spittle-flecked ranting wingnuttery, other than that offered by Mad Nad that is, Melanie Phillips’ blog at the Spectator’s Coffeehouse site, yields this fine example of the Fifth Horsewoman of the Leftist Apocalypse in full flow:

Absolutely untrue. All these problems, experienced disproportionately by those at the bottom of the heap, were foisted upon them by the overclass of which India Knight is a member. It was the champagne socialist intelligentsia which destroyed the traditional family, demonised men, incentivised mass fatherlessness and declared never-married motherhood an inalienable human right, emptied education of content and cut off the escape routes out of disadvantage by withering the grammar schools, declared morality to be a dirty word, paralysed the police through political correctness, enslaved the poor through dependency on the state and then finally destroyed their brains by telling them to eat cannabis cake while themselves showing the way by snorting cocaine on the Square Mile or in recording studios, or getting legless on Crackdaddy cocktails at Boujis nightclub.

Culture is transmitted top-down, not bottom up. It is the supercilious overclass, with its self-obsessed nihilism and the money to get itself out of trouble, which is responsible for our social degradation and collapse — and it is odious in the extreme to blame those whose lives and prospects it has so irresponsibly and irrevocably destroyed.

Phew! Do you think she managed to come up for breath while she was kicking that out?

The object of Mad Mel’s ire, on this occasion is a piece in the The Times by India Knight on the travails of Britain’s social underclass in which this passage, in particular, seems to have been responsible for driving Mad Mel into a fit of apoplexy:

The fact of the matter is that the binge-drinking problem is largely an underclass problem. Teen pregnancies are largely an underclass problem. Teenage crime is largely an underclass problem. Child neglect – we live in a country where a little girl allegedly starved to death in her own home last week – is largely an underclass problem. Our collective problems are largely underclass problems.

The one valid criticism you could level at Knight’s article is that it belongs firmly to school of stating the bleeding obvious. There’s nothing particular new, historically speaking, in the middle/upper classes having an attack of the vapours about the existence of a social underclass and all the social ills that go with it. The only difference this time around is that the UK hasn’t managed to address the problem in traditional fashion by arrange a war of sufficient size to cull the numbers of the great unwashed back to a manageable level, but to be fair to be fair to our political leaders, its not been for the lack of trying.

Nevertheless, Mad Mel is absolutely sure that if there is an underclass then it must automatically be the fault of the coke-snorting champagne socialist intelligentsia that, at some unspecified point in the last forty years – but most likely the 1960s – destroyed the traditional family, blah, blah, blah…

The decline of traditional family

Well, as Mad Mel, Ian Duncan-Smith and David Cameron all seem to think that its the decline of the traditional family that lies at the heart of the problem, then maybe we should be looking there and, specifically, at one of the touchstone issues that all three consider to be of critical importance, the growth in single-parenthood and, more generally, the trend which sees more and more children born outside of marriage.

What we have here is the overall trend for all births for the forty years between 1964 and 2004, plus individual trends for women in five year age groups plus one additional but important piece of information, the red and blue bar across the top of the graph shows which political party was in power in the UK at any given time over the last forty years with the white gaps in the bar (and the vertical lines on the graph) indicating a change of Prime Minister.

  • 1964-70 Harold Wilson (Labour)
  • 1970-74 Edward Heath (Conservative)
  • 1974-76 Harold Wilson (Labour)
  • 1976-79 James Callaghan (Labour)
  • 1979-90 Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)
  • 1990-97 John Major (Conservative)
  • 1997-04 Tony Blair (Labour)

So, of the last forty years, sixteen have been spent under a Labour government and twenty-four under a Conservative one.

If you look at the age group data, you’ll also see nothing that would come as any great surprise, generally declining trends across the lower ages groups (under 30’s) and rising trends in the 30-34 and 35-39 groups, all of which is consistent with the known trend to toward women delaying entry motherhood in order to develop/pursue a career. For under 15s, where the big moral panics tend to arise, the long term trend is, actually a stable one of periodic variations around a mid point of around 250 births a year in total, one that hasn’t changed since the 1960s.

The other noteworthy trend, and one which begins to challenge some of the ‘received wisdom’ amongst social conservatives, is that over the last 40 years the number of women giving birth while still a teenager has fallen by about half, from 85-86,000 during the mid 1960s to around 43-44,000 today.

Birth Trends within and outside marriage.

To look in more depth at what’s been happening we need two further graphs, one providing trends for births within marriage…

…and a second graph, as you might expect, showing the trends for births outside marriage:

Mad Mel’s ‘coke-snorting socialist intelligentsia jibe’ consists of two parts each which would, if true, show a markedly different type of effect in the trend data.

The first of these is the trope that suggests that decline in the ‘traditional family’ is the product of cultural changes forged by the liberal permissiveness of, in particular, the late 1960s and early 1970s, an view that, to be fair, is by no means confined to the ravings of right-wing opinion writers. For that we’d need to see a staged cohort effect bleeding in over time – look at the graph for births within marriage and what happens to the 20-24 and 25-29 age groups during the 1980 and early 1990’s; the decline in births within marriage in the younger group kick in in 1980 but takes a further ten years to impact on the older group. That’s the kind of effect we’d expect to see on both graphs if the liberal culture of the 60s and 70s were driving the trends.

So that proves Mad Mel’s point… yes?

No. It’s rather more complicated than that because the cohort effect we’re seeing here is a reflection of the general trend in which women were, and still are, delaying both entry in marriage and motherhood until their, at the time, late twenties and, more recently, into their thirties as the rising trends in the over 30’s groups clearly show.

But looking at the data for births outside marriage, our key indicator of the declining importance of the ‘traditional’ family what we see is that something did change and itschanged right at the beginning of the 1980s… but what, and what kind of change are we looking at?

What we have there in the data for births outside marriage is, in 1the late 70’s and early 80s, the beginning of a rising trend that spreads across four age groups with a 20 year difference in age between the youngest and oldest members, within a matter of 2-3 years at most. Yes, the trend appears to begin in 1976/7, but then the trend for all births shifted upwards at the same time. The important point here is that from 1980, the general birth trend fell back but the trend for births outside marriage continued upwards. That is too sharply defined a shift to be a cohort effect, one that could be accounted for by a gradual shift in cultural attitudes emanating from the end of the 1960s and early 1970s.

So if not that then what?

Well, that brings us to the second component of Mad Mel’s ill-conceived jibe. If its not a generational change in cultural attitude, and one can hardly blame Punk, New Wave and the New Romantics for the effects we’re seeing in the data, then we must be looking at socio-economic or legislative changes as the most likely cause. All of which brings us, of course, to Mad Mel’s rant about grammar schools, political correctness and what she clearly see to be the effects of left-wing influence on government policy.

Now, there’s no doubt that the legalisation of abortion gave women an alternative to single parenthood or a hasty marriage, one that many of them took, particularly younger women. As I’ve already pointed out, amongst 15-19 year olds the number of pregnancies in that age group in 2004 was about the same as it was in 1964 while the number of births has halved over the last 40 years.

On the other side of the equation, liberalising the UK’s divorce laws will have had some impact on the increase in the number of children born outside marriage, particularly to older women who may be having their first child or adding to their existing brood having previously been both married and divorced.

We can rule out legislation as a causal factor as so far as the major pieces of legislation which social conservatives blame for the breakdown of the family are concerned the only trend correlations one finds are that the sharp rise in the divorce rate which rose sharply in the wake of the liberalisation of the divorce laws in 1967 slowed considerably following the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which stabilised the legal framework for divorce. and actually declined in the wake of the introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorces during the 1990s.

Legalising abortion did have the effect of stripping out most of the ‘shotgun weddings’ amongst younger women but, up until the late 1970s/early 80s this only served to hold down the number of children born outside marriage, and if you take those two areas of legislation out of the picture then you really are struggling to find anything that coincides with shifts in the trend data unless you’re dumb enough to try and suggest that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 is directly responsible for the decline of the traditional family.

We’ve already noted that the beginning of the rise in the numbers of children born outside marriage emerged during the period from 1976-79, during which time a Labour government was in power under James Callaghan. Did that government do anything that might account for the rising trend that followed? Not that I can identify or that would make any sense at all.

What the data shows is the creation of the today’s social underclass and the frightening speed with which it came into being. It took only a decade of high unemployment and the near systematic dismantling of the UK’s manufacturing base and the working class communities that depended on those industries for their economic well-being to wreck a generation and create an underclass in which a stable and secure family life is too often the exception rather than the norm.

Mad Mel is right about one thing – the culture of hopelessness, lack of aspiration and economic deprivation which, today, bedevils the children of this first modern underclass was created by a top-down process engendered by a supercilious, nihilistic and self-obsessed overclass, but this overclass was never one made up of her mythical champagne socialist intellectuals – we had to wait for Blatcherism and New Labour for their first appearance on the scene – it was the Thatcher government that created the social and economic conditions that spawned the new underclass while city traders got fat on the proceeds of despair, some of which they happily converted into Porsche 911s and lines of coke.

Stupid thinking
Equally, it is odious in the extreme to blame those whose lives and prospects have been so irresponsibly and irrevocably destroyed over the last 28 years, but maybe not quite so odious as making such a statement while, at the same time, laying the blame for this sate of affairs at the door of just about everyone but those who were truly responsible.

By all means take new Labour to task for its failure to challenge the neo-liberal economic consensus constructed by the Tories during the 1980s but don’t try to pretend that it was New Labour who created today’s social underclass or undermined the traditional family; that dubious honour belongs squarely to Margaret Thatcher and the law of unintended consequences.

Give ordinary working people the simple dignity of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and over time, while the problems created by the social underclass will never quite be eradicated – there are always some who are determined to live outside the pale, what American’s would call the ‘1%ers’ – most of them will dissipate over time.

Until, the underclass looks like its here to stay, so the very least we can do is be honest in our efforts to understand its origins and ameliorate the worst of the depredations it faces – promulgating ahistorical fictions gets us nowhere… speaking of which…

On May 19th 2008, David Cameron gave a speech in Birmingham in which, perhaps emboldened by the government’s current difficulties, he chose to openly attempt to take up the mantle of Margaret Thatcher by stating:

“All this supports the overriding mission we have set for ourselves: to revive our society just as Margaret Thatcher revived our economy; to reverse Britain’s social breakdown, just as she reversed our economic breakdown.”

If that’s genuinely Cameron’s mission – its difficult to tell as he’ll quite obviously say just about anything at the moment if he thinks there’s a few votes in it – and he does win the next election then all I can say is that, based on the evidence of what Thatcher’s revival of Britain’s economy did for society, we’re screwed.

Or to put it a little more musically, courtesy of XTC, a Cameron victory at the next general election can mean only one thing for Britain…

When all logic grows cold and all thinking gets done,

You’ll be warm in the arms of the Mayor of Simpleton.

A longer version of this article, with more explanations of the data, is on Ministry of Truth.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments


You may not like to hear this, but you pretty much agree with us!

I would argue that some of the cultural features had already been put in place before Thatcher. But it was, undeniably, her economic policy that triggered the sudden collapse in family structure. I think that those economic reforms were still necessary but neither party has been able to address these huge side effects.

quite brilliant Unity – what i’ve thought all along and why i’m filled with a palpable sense of dread….. thanks for giving us the superblyy researched breakdown as ammo!


I’m not phased by that at all – the evidence is what it is and diagnosing the problem is the easy part. It’s finding solutions that’s the tricky part and that may be where our respective positions diverge somewhat.

I’m actually quite pleased to see someone on your side of the fence noticing the same thing that I’ve noticed rather than banging away at the line that treats marriage as the universal panacea for all social ills – which it isn’t. I think you’re entirely correct to suggest that its a signal of commitment not a cause.

Whether structure matters as much as you seem to think is a little more questionable, but then I come from a working class background in which amongst my mother’s generation and, even more so, my grandmother’s generation, parenting was undertaken almost exclusively by an extended matriarchal network, a family structure that we’ve largely lost in the UK although it does still exist in migrant communities.

The modern nuclear family, which both parties consider to be ‘traditional’ is, historically, a relatively recent invention of the middle classes and nothing like as traditional as some seem to think, a line of inquiry that you might wish to take up and develop further, especially as I think there’s far more mileage in that than in any fiscal levers that government might try pulling.

I agree that the nuclear family is more the image that hides a rather more complex social network (although married couples, historically and in traditional communities, are a common feature of that structure). But I think both the left and the right bought into the illusion somewhat: the traditional right because the nuclear family offers a neat model that gives fathers and husbands pride of place; the left because it helps to confirm their prejudices against bourgeois civil society (of atomised, alienated individuals and families cut off from the world by white fences and privet hedges).

Both positions are wrong because the premise of the nuclear family is mistaken (it isn’t applicable to traditional working class communities and is a caricature, at best, of middle class family life). However, I am not sure what this means for practical policy. Government isn’t capable of rebuilding these social networks from the top down, though it has certainly helped to destroy them in the first place. Which is why we tend to concentrate on fiscal policy in the hope that if we persuade the Government to get out of the way, community structures will rebuild themselves. Besides that, as a charity, we try to get involved on the ground ourselves by educating children that lack the support and aspirations of a middle class background:

We don’t believe that a vibrant civil society, with large family networks and communities, is incompatible with a market economy, and I suppose that is where we will disagree.

We don’t believe that a vibrant civil society, with large family networks and communities, is incompatible with a market economy, and I suppose that is where we will disagree.

Not necessarily – that would depend on whether you see the distorting effects of large accumulations of capital on the market – i.e. corporations – as an inevitable consequence of market forces or as a monopolistic force that requires a measure of regulation in the interests of preserving competition.

At least part of the left has moved on from fetishising state socialism without buying wholesale into neo-liberal economics, in essence by looking back beyond Marx to the kind of socialism evident in the work of JS Mill and the pre-Marxian socialism that animated the Cooperative movement.

There are other social market models that are worth exploring and incentivising, not just Co-ops but also the Quaker model practiced by the Rowntree and Cadbury families and the Lever Brothers.

These are things that governments can influence using fiscal and other levers – Co-ops, for example, are horribly over regulated and a nightmare to set up asa result, a perfect target for some much needed clarification and simplification. Chuck in a few fiscal incentives via the tax and business rates system linked to things like employing people from local communities, selling local produce and engaging in socially responsible activities, for example members of a local traders/business association could get a tax break for contributing to the funding for a local creche which would enable local women to work in the local economy.

This would necessitate some regulation of big business to protect local niche markets – if you look at migrant communities over the last 40-50, the one’s that have made a success of migration as those like the Sikhs, Hindus and Chinese, all of which have come to the UK with a strong trading tradition. If you look at how those communities have developed then the first thing you notice is that as soon as they start to accumulate in an area, the first thing that happens is that a local food store opens catering to a niche market which, until relatively recently, the big supermarkets have largely ignored. Straight away you have trade, which generates wealth and in the absence of external competition that wealth circulates within the community, bringing in more people, more business and more wealth.

By way of contrast, communities that have struggled are those without a strong trading tradition who have come to the UK for employment rather than to engage in business, the African-Caribbean community being the main one, with the lack of a trading culture being a legacy of the slave trade, but this would also be true of Mirpuris and Sylhetis who comes from an agrarian subsistence economy. Thankfully some of that is starting to change where I live and we’re seeing specialist African Caribbean foodstores starting to crop up, which is a good sign.

And there, also, is your extended family networks working in concert with the market to improve local economic and social conditions – the South Asian family business that started out with a first generation nuclear family and a convenience store but which now, with its second and third generation in place, runs a small chain of 2-3 convenience stores, a couple of fast food outlets, a local hardware store and a few other bits besides. That chain not only generates wealth for the family but supports other local community businesses. It’s gets its legal services from a local solicitor, handles its property dealings via a local estate agent, uses a local accountant, all of which form part of family business networks.

All that has worked because supermarkets and other major corporations, for a long time, ignored the minority community niche markets and didn’t, therefore leech away the wealth being generated in the community, giving those communities time to accumulate a store of capital, fiscal and social, from which to build.

Those conditions, sadly, no longer exist naturally in many areas , as supermarkets have caught on to the existence of these niche markets and are starting to try to move in on them, which is where government regulation can usefully come into play if only they have the courage to say to the Tescos and Asdas ‘this far and no further”.

No we might disagree on that point, or we might not – I don’t know, but I suspect that any gulf between us on the other stuff may be pretty small.

Finally, a breath of moral realism injected into the debate — and with real empiricism!

I am a Yank who has published on the Culture War Right’s exaggerated visions of doom. Lots of people here in the States snort coke, shoot smack and have kids out of wedlock (not to imply that having kids out of wedlock leads to drug use). Unfortunately, it’s the black and Hispanic underclasses who are doing such things far more than anyone else. And they didn’t acquire their bad habits from some unholy alliance between Jack Nicholson and Joan Jett.

I read Mad Mel, too. She’s an overrated hack who caricatures more than she understands character.

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