UNPALATABLE CHOICES AND INADEQUATE FAMILIES
Although Murray does not reflect the views of any sizeable academic constituency in Britain, he is an important and influential figure. In 1987 he had meetings with Department of Health and Social Security and Treasury officials and members of the then Prime Minister’s Policy Unit, and two years later he addressed the Prime Minister (Dean and Taylor-Gooby 1992:5). The press are not generally noted for their keen interest in the work of social scientists, but the views of Murray have been invoked to provide academic credibility for various leader writers and social commentators. The Sunday Times has persistently cited Murray, with Andrew Neil, the paper’s former editor, pointing out that it was his newspaper that introduced Murray to the British public and sponsored his ‘research’ in Britain in 1989. Murray’s ideas have also been disseminated by News International Group newspapers in other countries. Rightwing think tanks—the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain and the Centre for Industrial Studies in Australia—have been quick to adopt Murray’s arguments, both publishing his work (Murray 1990), and imprinting their other publications with the mark of his theories (e. g. Dennis and Erdos 1992; Davies 1993). Thus, and despite the fact that he has done little primary research, Murray has found a receptive international audience and a number of followers among journalists and politicians. As an American, Murray is considered to be well placed to tell Britain what the future may hold if unmarried mothers are allowed to continue reproducing the underclass unchecked. Comparisons with the United States are commonplace within the British discourse, with the spectre of American inner-city social dislocation and violence given prominence (MacGregor 1990).3
According to Murray, there are three types of behaviour associated with membership of the underclass: illegitimacy, violent crime and drop-out from the labour force. He does not make clear whether these forms of behaviour are cause or consequence of underclass membership. What is clear, however, is that the underclass, to put it in the ‘common-sense’ language Murray is so fond of, is composed of ‘idle, thieving bastards’ (Bagguley and Mann 1992).
Like many right-wing observers, Murray presents the issue in terms of rational choices. Whereas choice is usually portrayed by the right as a tremendous benefit to society and the economy, it is seen as inappropriate for women who want to have children without the support of an economically active man. Thus David Green of the Institute of Economic Affairs (in the Institute’s series entitled ‘Choice in Welfare’) laments the fact that, The traditional family of mum, dad and the kids has become just another lifestyle choice.’ He goes on to ask, ‘Is every moral value just another lifestyle option? Or is there a minimum stock of values which we ignore at our peril?’ (Green 1993:vi).
Never-married mothers are deemed to have made the wrong choices, albeit, according to Murray, rational ones. Murray argues that lone mothers choose dependence on the state in preference to marriage because the benefit system privileges the lone mother over the two-parent family. This combines with the fact that there is no longer a stigma to illegitimacy to mean that many young women no longer see the need to marry in order to have children. Murray goes on to suggest that these women are denying their children suitable masculine role models and denying young men a respectable role as father figures. There is a moral vacuum, it is claimed, which has its roots in the ‘permissive society’ of the 1960s, the period when Murray detects a shift in social values. The stigma that Murray feels is so important in deterring illegitimacy was eroded by the ‘sexual revolution of the 1960s’ (Murray 1990:28). As he says:
There is an obvious explanation for why single young women get pregnant: sex is fun and babies endearing. Nothing could be more natural than for young men and women to have sex, and nothing
could be more natural than for a young woman to want to have a baby.
Only the financial restraints of subsistence benefits and social opprobrium can restrain such biologically determined, natural inclinations. In Murray’s world view both men and women are driven by essential impulses—men to reckless barbarian behaviour and promiscuous sex, women to reproduction and motherhood. In order for society to function smoothly, this Hobbesian state of nature must be tamed by moral codes and economic sanctions. However, he does not suggest that all ‘fatherless families’ are part of the underclass: widows and divorcees are generally exempt, as are affluent women with careers who choose to be unmarried lone parents. The focus is squarely on working-class women.
According to Murray, ‘illegitimacy’ is bad for both men and boys, and as a consequence is bad for society as a whole; whether or not it is good or bad for women does not enter his discussion. First of all, boys brought up without a male role model in female-headed households do not receive adequate socialization into manhood:
Little boys don’t naturally grow up to be responsible fathers and husbands. They don’t naturally grow up knowing how to get up every morning at the same time and go to work. They don’t naturally grow up thinking that work is not just a way to make money, but a way to hold one’s head high in the world.
Without a father, adolescent boys are unruly and criminal; ‘in communities without fathers the kids tend to run wild. The fewer the fathers, the greater the tendency’ (Murray 1990:12).
Not being a real father, a father who works to provide for his wife and family, is also bad for adult men themselves. Paid work must be ‘the centre of life’ for young men.
Supporting a family is a central means for a man to prove to himself that he is a ‘mensch’. Men who do not support families find other ways to prove that they are men…. [Y]oung males are essentially barbarians for whom marriage—meaning not just the wedding vows but the act of taking responsibility for a wife and children—is an indispensable civilizing force.
These views about the vital importance of fathers to social stability have since been echoed by Halsey, speaking from an ‘ethical socialist’ perspective:
The very, very important ingredient of a role model of a working man, a person who goes to work and comes back and does all sorts of DIY and is a responsible adult person, is missing. And that seems to be a way of making sure you don’t have barbarism. Because young men, grown men have got nothing to do with anything that really matters and they just faff around satisfying their own desires, tastes.
(Panorama, BBC1, 20 September 1993)
Following the Bulger murder, the Sunday Times solicited Murray’s views from the United States about the problem of juvenile crime and resurrected his earlier commentary. The marks of his theories are clearly visible in an editorial entitled ‘Return of the Family’:
It is becoming increasingly clear to all but the most blinkered of social scientists that the disintegration of the nuclear family is the principal source of so much social unrest and misery. The creation of an urban underclass, on the margins of society, but doing great damage to itself and the rest of us, is directly linked to the rapid rise in illegitimacy.
The past two decades have witnessed the growth of whole communities in which the dominant family structure is the singleparent mother on welfare, whose male offspring are already immersed in a criminal culture by the time they are teenagers and whose daughters are destined to follow the family tradition of unmarried mothers…. [F]or communities to function successfully they need families with fathers.
(Sunday Times, 28 February 1993)
Startlingly similar opinions have also been expressed in the British liberal press. Melanie Phillips in the Guardian had already been writing about the problem of the underclass before the juvenile crime panic erupted; the Bulger murder provided the moment for a full-scale campaign to ‘rediscover the values of the family’ (Guardian, 26 February 1993). Phillips hangs her polemic on the work of Halsey, whom she interviewed for the Guardian (23 February 1993). Halsey ‘feels passionately that the decline of the nuclear family is not merely at the root of many social ills but is the cancer in the lungs of the modern left’. He laments the disappearance of the specificity of the ‘family contract’, and the absence of male role models in contemporary families:
We’re talking about a situation where the man never arrives, never mind leaves. There is a growing proportion of children born into single parent families where the father has never participated as a father but only as a genital.
(Guardian, 23 February 1993)
Apparently Halsey feels that, without a father, the child (implicitly male), grows up unable to see women ‘as anything other than objects of sexual manipulation and gratification’. (Presumably when mothers also perform domestic labour for their husbands, fathers disavow boys of the idea that women only provide sexual servicing!)
Using Halsey’s ideas as academic legitimation for her own, and citing the work of the Institute for Public Policy Research, Phillips argues that being brought up by a lone mother is bad for children’s psychological development. Public policy should explicitly support two-parent families, and enforce paternal responsibility.
So, the views of the conservative, Murray, and the socialist, Halsey, are remarkably close, the most obvious difference being that Halsey places considerable emphasis on the need for real men to be keen at DIY. Both commentators paint peculiarly romantic pictures of patriarchal masculinity that seem to be locked into the 1950s. But with the decline of the sort of ‘respectable working-class’ employment in manufacturing industry that Murray’s ‘mensch’ would have taken, the rise in the service sector, women’s employment and part-time working, their ideal family structure confronts head-on the reality of the free market in the 1990s.