If high-flyers refuse to be mums, we shall rear mediocrities

The Family Policy Studies Centre has come up with its very own bouquet for Mothering Sunday: a study that finds marriage has never been so unfashionable, or motherhood so unappealing. The statistics are dire. More than six and a half million people live alone; one in four women now aged 27 will remain childless; and - the figure that will send shivers down every middle-class spine - teenage single mums are fast becoming the biggest social group giving birth.

Motherhood as minority sport is a new concept for society to get its head round: the idea that we're here on Earth to procreate has been so ingrained, for so long, that it seems preposterous to find anyone who doesn't buy it. It was a pillar not only of Biblical teaching - "go forth and multiply" - but also of Darwinian theory: the fittest survived, then mated and spawned junior.

Society, too, held fertility at a premium: the more, the merrier was how generations of tax-collecting monarchs, feudal lords, and feuding armies saw the population issue. And in nature, too, procreation was at the back of every animal's mind. As David Attenborough's programmes never tire of showing us, female chimps are always looking out for the biggest, brawniest and hairiest beast to give them one.

So why should we suddenly find ourselves staring, if not at extinction, then at a drastic diminution of the species?

Blame it on the women. Top-quality men (the healthiest, wealthiest, toughest, and best educated) still want to make miniature versions of themselves; but top-range women (who can now boast the same credentials in terms of health, income, spirit and education) prefer to leave reproduction to the second eleven. These are women who've fought for inclusion among the great and good: for a place at the top table. They have achieved much, and aspire to gain more; and, like Cyril Connolly, they would single out the pram in the hallway as the enemy of promise.

Their success has fostered independence, which in turn has stamped out broodiness: me first (and second, and third) has been their battle-cry for so long, that the compromises required to be a mum have become impossible. Why give up sleep, socialising, slipping away for the impromptu weekend, casual sex and the thrill of earning lots of lovely money and spending it on moi? These are hard-won privileges - and to lose them when you've just begun to enjoy them seems perverse. And so the high-flyers are saying no to motherhood.

Single, teenaged, unemployed, poorly qualified: these are the characteristics that will soon be associated with maternity. A bump, despite Madonna, risks becoming as clear a proof of a working-class background as the fag hanging from someone's lips. With successful women defining "quality time" as their hour with the yoga instructor rather than the precious minutes with their little treasures, the parents of future generations will be restricted to the poor gals who didn't get ahead and the men who will make do with them.

The consequences of this revolution will be harsh. The issue of the union of second-league woman and the man who'll have her does not seem destined for great things; and a society made up of mediocrities, whose lack-lustre lineage will hinder their progress through life, is not an inviting proposition. With the quality of mothers slipping, the quality of motherhood risks a similar deterioration. The pregnant school drop-out who just wanted a baby to love her is incapable - no matter how many parenting classes her sixth form offers - of nurturing her child properly; just as later, she will be unable to educate it, or advise it wisely. Her young will grow into a socially autistic adult with little expectation and even less talent.

How cruel, the women who refuse to be mums. They condemn us to a very poor- quality world. And a much smaller one.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide