It feels most odd to be writing this letter to you across what appears to be a chasm of thinking that divides us. Odd because although we are both working mothers and for years were colleagues at the Guardian, we now find ourselves on opposing sides in this great debate about the family. We’ve never talked about it, nor have we written directly about each other’s views. But I know from personal experience that this issue more than any other is a bitter battleground. What makes it so explosive is that the family is about not living as an atomised individual. Yet we live in an individualistic culture which sets as our highest goal the achievement of personal happiness. The family sets extremely inconvenient limits to that individualism. Most people do still aspire to a traditional family life, in which they marry and raise their own children. But more and more people are rejecting the limitations of loyalty, fidelity, duty and responsibility that such a life entails.
You know as well as I do the statistics showing the burgeoning rates of divorce, cohabitation, babies born out of wedlock and so on. These trends are to be regretted because of the damage they entail both to individuals and to our wider civic fabric. As these trends unfold, more and more cultural commentators-academics, journalists, pressure group activists, politicians-are becoming players, through their own lives, in the drama of the fragmenting family. Partly for this reason, the conclusion that “the family isn’t deteriorating, only changing” is not reached from a dispassionate examination of the evidence. Time after time, I have observed ostensible policy discussions about the family which lightly camouflage a justification of personal experience. It is also a discussion which is-ludicrously-politically polarised, with defenders of the traditional family pilloried as reactionaries. True, people like myself wish to “conserve” certain values and structures without which I think we cannot live in a civilised way. But that doesn’t make us any more reactionary than those green conservationists who wish to protect the physical environment from the depredations of selfish individualism. Being green is seen as laudable; but defending the moral ecology is beyond the pale.
I have been astonished by the irrational nature of the attacks on family conservationists by the “not deteriorating, only changing” school. Such people appear to deny the obvious. My starting point has been the damage caused to…