The British "fathers' rights" movement is a desperate, grass-roots campaign undertaken by bitter men on the fringes of society. As you stare at their hatred and despair, however, you at least have an intimation of how American-style "backlash" politics could work here.
Fathers 4 Justice is the campaign's public face, and, more often than not, that face seems benign. In May, Ron Davis, one of its leaders, managed to hit Tony Blair with a condom filled with flour that he hurled across the Commons from the Strangers' Gallery. The shot was more of a jape than an assassination attempt, and was rightly treated as a laugh by the press and by the Prime Minister, who carried on as if nothing had happened. Ferdinand Mount noted in the Sunday Times that Davis must have a fine arm; his long throw was "the equivalent of hitting a single stump from deep square leg". In September, Jason Hatch dressed in a Batman outfit and scaled the facade of Buckingham Palace. He didn't cause any damage and police marksmen didn't shoot him dead, as they would have done in most countries. It was all very English, as we like to say - a bit of silliness with no harm done.
Yet away from Westminster, fathers are running a campaign of intimidation against the court staff and family lawyers who deal with divorce cases that is neither charming nor funny. If it is quintessentially English, it appeals to the side of the English character that likes to post dog dirt through letter boxes.
Napo, the union that represents family court workers, is keeping a logbook of what its members are facing. No one has been hurt yet, but that's not for want of trying. In the south-west, a man warned his ex-partner's solicitor that he knew where she lived and that there would be trouble if she didn't drop the case. No one knows who was responsible, but a few days later the solicitor's car exploded outside her home. Petrol had been poured with evident care over its engine and into its headlights, which suggests that the assailant hoped the car would explode when she got in and turned the headlights on. (Fortunately, she was unharmed.)
In Portsmouth, Fathers 4 Justice members hinted that they could turn violent in their struggle against the court workers whom they blame for preventing them from seeing their children. To date, their tactics have been peaceful, if unpleasant. Fish heads and rotting meat were posted through the letter box of the city's Cafcass office one Saturday. (Cafcass is the court agency that deals with divorce cases.) By the time staff returned to work on Monday, the building stank and was crawling with maggots. Phil Osgood, a Portsmouth campaigner, warned that Fathers 4 Justice had the names and addresses of Cafcass workers. "How far is our campaign going to have to go before somebody listens?" he asked. "We have been very low-level, like Supergluing locks and other pranks, and I can say that it is gradually being increased."
And so it is. On 1 April this year, when direct action against court workers began, it consisted of men dressing up in de-contamination suits and throwing buckets of soapy water over Cafcass offices in the middle of the night. Calling it "direct action" is a bit strong. The action was so indirect that most of the court staff didn't realise it had taken place.
Today the chatrooms and message boards of the fathers' rights websites are filled with naming and shaming announcements that portend far more sinister action. I will quote one in full to give an example of the wild fury.
It gives the name of a local Cafcass officer (I don't think it wise for me to follow suit), and begins by saying that she "didn't listen to my son's wishes to spend an equal amount of nights at his dad's as well as mum's. I believe [the officer] is a gender-biased, untrained, back-stabbing nutcase who, for a reason my son or I still don't know, wanted my son to spend only five nights instead of seven out of 14 with his dad. I brought the proceedings after being asked to pay money to my ex in order for my son to stay with me. My son in his 'secret' interview with [the officer] asked for an equal amount of nights with Dad and Mum. She ignored his wishes. Has she been given a bribe? How corrupt is she? Why does she want me to pay for my son to see me?
"[Officer's name] shame on you for playing with my son's life like you have. You are an obscene waste of public money. Get a life!! Don't take your personal frustration and low self-esteem out on children. You're a first-class b@stard and I hope you rot in hell!!! . . . The truth will prevail and you are already guilty."
This is typical of dozens of messages on the noticeboards, and suggests an anger far removed from the sub-Pythonesque urge to dress up in silly costumes and climb into Buckingham Palace. Note the pervading sense of justice denied; the just solution is for the boy to divide his time equally between his mother and father. Why has justice not been done? Has the officer been bribed? Is she mad, vindictive or stupid? Or does she have a gender bias against fathers?
These people see it as a given that an extreme feminist bias pervades the system. Glen Poole, a spokesman for Fathers 4 Justice, described Cafcass as being "stuffed from head to toe with ideological dinosaurs who believe that fathers are dispensable".
In response to this, the government and Harry Fletcher, a spokesman for Napo, point out that in only 1 per cent of cases are fathers prohibited from seeing their children - and then it is nearly always because they are violent. Fletcher describes Fathers 4 Justice as a misogynistic movement, whose members see women and children as their property to do with as they please, and cannot accept that the patriarchal world has gone.
I am sure there is plenty of truth in this argument, but it doesn't begin to cover the ground. For a start, some of the most heart- rending stories come from men who aren't at all violent, who are perfectly entitled to see their children yet have all but ruined themselves in the effort to uphold their rights. The letters pages of the newspapers are a better guide to what is happening than the attention-seeking stunts covered in the news pages. Fathers speak of spending tens of thousands in legal battles. Even when they win many women refuse to obey contact orders, and judges do nothing because they say, perfectly reasonably, that the only good that jailing the mother would do is persuade the child to hate the father.
Beyond the specific cause of fathers' rights lies the wider failure of permissive society, which Fathers 4 Justice is rather cannily exploiting. No one tries to pretend any more that children brought up by one parent do not, on average, suffer as a result; no one tries to pretend that, on average again, step-parents look after stepchildren as well as their natural parents; no one tries to deny that, for most people who aren't blase to the point of being sociopaths (as many men and quite a few women are), break-ups are a crippling shock, both for the parent who is forced out of the child's life and for the child itself.
There is fertile political ground here. However, the attempts by the British right to emulate the US Republicans by turning the collapse of the traditional family into an election-winning issue have so far been disasters. After the media had finished with John Major's "back to basics" campaign, the moral lesson the public had learned was that a Tory MP was a man who would pick your pocket and steal your wife (or husband, in more exotic cases). William Hague's decision to run in 2001 on a manifesto made up of Daily Mail cuttings was the worst of his many blunders. After this sorry record, everyone says that Britain isn't like the United States; it doesn't have its religious certainties and traditions of politicised evangelism. But just because the right has failed in the past doesn't mean it will fail in the future. The best that can be said for Britain's moral conservatives is that they face up to one of the great issues of the day. Their programme for reform is ludicrous - do they really think that twiddling with the tax system and giving subsidies to married couples can reverse a huge social change? - but it is a programme none the less.
The danger for the liberal left is that it has nothing to say, because it is stuck with an extreme individualist ideology that mirrors the pure capitalist economics of the right. What shoppers do in the free market in sex is their business; regulation would be an unwarranted restriction on the rights of the sovereign consumer of relationships. It would not only be wrong in principle but disastrous in practice, because regulation would prevent the invisible hand of competition between an ever-shifting cast of potential mates from creating ideal family structures.
Where Fathers 4 Justice makes its mistake is in assuming that the courts are infected with feminist bias. They are not, as anyone who has met a judge could tell the group's campaigners. Rather, the law has a tendency to ignore fathers because it simply cannot cope with the great wave of human anger and misery that the free market in sex has produced. Giving in to the mother is the easiest way of coping with a mountain of work that would otherwise be overwhelming. The opportunity for the right and the danger for the left is that at least conservatives acknowledge the anger and misery, and don't pretend that they don't matter or don't exist.