What Exactly Are Families?
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th December, 2007
When Nick Clegg was elected the new leader of the LibDems, he surprised many members by announcing that he was going to establish a network of ordinary families round the country, people unconnected with mainstream politics, so he could find out what they were thinking. My left eyebrow certainly went up sharply. Not because I don’t think politicians should engage with ‘real people’ — on the contrary — but rather, over his choice of the word ‘families’. It’s not just that the word ‘family’ is more commonly part of the rhetoric of right-wing politicians. It is a fact that these days, fewer than 30% of households in Britain are made up of traditional ‘families’. Indeed, in London especially, the big trend in accommodation patterns has been for single-person dwellings. Shared households reflect all sorts of social patterns and relationships.
I suppose it is inevitable that my mind turns to the ‘family’ question on Christmas Day, which in Britain in particular is the day that families traditionally spend together. Christmas cards, chocolate boxes and the television all maintain the myth that this is what it is all about. Even the Church often ignores the fact that Jesus was born in an extremely unorthodox fashion into a dysfunctional family, whom he later left — urging his followers to do likewise, in search of truth, enlightenment or whatever one wants to call it — never married or had kids (as far as we know). Bully for him, I say, as that was right for him. I am reminded of André Gide, whose writings had a marked influence on my youth, when he pronounced, ‘Familles, je vous hais!’ (even though that author actually adored his mother, to an almost unhealthy degree).
I do not hate families myself. To do so would be silly, as well as unjust, and a form of special pleading from someone who doesn’t have one, up or down (if you see what I mean). And I am truly happy for happy families, where they exist. But on Christmas Day above all, those of us who do not have families, or whose family life is not perfect, who are bereaved, or orphaned, or living in different life situations or arrangements, might be tempted to say to Nick Clegg and others: ‘Yes, consult widely! But please, talk about and to individuals, households and communities, not just families!’