CHALLENGES TO DISCOURSES OF LONE MOTHERS
In July 1993, John Redwood, then Secretary of State for Wales, made a speech against lone mothers that set the tone for a major theme of the Conservative party annual conference at the beginning of October 1993. At that conference, various British Secretaries of State attacked lone motherhood in away that echoed sentiments expressed in the US 1992 presidential campaign and that could be viewed as attempts to provide a context in which the new Child Support Agency could pursue ‘errant fathers’. Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, and Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, both made speeches that questioned whether unmarried, single women should have children and, if they did, whether they should have access to council housing and welfare payments. They thus paved the way for the Green Paper on housing, which aimed to restrict the housing entitlement of lone mothers (announced by Sir George Young in 1993). John Patten, the then Secretary of State for Education, spoke of the hordes of irresponsible parents in Britain who have children and then fail to look after them properly, a sentiment that fitted with Michael Howard’s claim at the conference that the children of lone mothers are likely to become criminals and his advocacy of a return to a policy of having the babies born to young, single women adopted: ‘So the outcome was that girls in that situation frequently put their babies out for adoption as the only way out. From the child’s—and the mother’s—point of view that may have been the best outcome’ (lecture to the Conservative Political Centre in Blackpool, cited in the Sunday Telegraph, 10 October 1993). At the same conference, John Major, the Prime Minister, coined his ‘back to basics’ slogan, advocating, among other things, a return to traditional teaching and respect for family values.
The confident launching of the multi-faceted attack on lone mothers and absent fathers by the Conservative government was followed by an unexpected counter-attack. At a general level, this was partly because members of the government failed to recognize that, while censure of lone mothers has historically been relatively easy to mobilize, this is no longer the case. Two specific factors account for this. First, demographic shifts in lone parenting have increased the number of people resistant to being constructed (or having their friends and relatives constructed) by the government as ‘Other’. This opposition has been heightened by revelations that the private lives of some high-ranking members of that government have been inconsistent with ‘back to basics’. Second, alternative, informed constructions of lone parenting are available that highlight the lack of success of policies resulting from Conservative discourses.