David Cameron with Samantha Cameron at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What has my relationship status got to do with my tax code?

The Married Couple's Tax Allowance shows that the Tories don't just believe in the deserving and undeserving poor, but in the deserving and undeserving family.

Memorable and moving encounters with constituents often inform MPs' contributions to debates. I frequently draw upon them. During the 2010 general election campaign, I knocked on the door of a single mother who had recently left her husband because he had been violent towards her. She and her two sons were living with her mum. The father was making no financial contribution so she was working hard and her mother was helping out with childcare. This mum was angry and upset. She told me how hard she and her mother were trying to give her children a good life and to bring them up to be respectful and to work hard at school. She had heard on the news that morning that the Tories were promising a tax cut for married couples. She wanted to know what she had done wrong, why she didn't deserve the same break and if David Cameron expected or wanted her to stay in that relationship.

I remembered that mother yesterday as the House of Commons debated Labour's amendment to the Married Couple's Tax Allowance. As I listened to the debate, I felt like I had travelled back in time to the 1980s when I was a school governor in Oxfordshire. School boards had just been given the power to establish sexuality education policy. I suppose it was inevitable that in a Church of England village primary school all those years ago, this led to a vigorous debate about relationships and families. I didn't win the argument to adopt a policy which saw homosexual relationships and different kinds of family as equal. With the abolition of Section 28, equalisation of the age of consent, and same sex marriage legislation, I thought that times had changed. My argument had in time been won.

However, as we debated the tax allowance, I lost the argument all over again. I heard the same kind of language and views that I had heard in that school board almost 30 years ago; I realise that the Tories believe in the deserving and undeserving poor, but it is now clear that they also believe in the deserving and undeserving family

Speaker after speaker on the government benches spoke about families and how this policy was designed to help families. That is not what this policy does. Unless you are truly of a different time, you recognise that families come in different forms. Even this tax cut offers equal treatment to same sex marriages and civil partnerships. It was a strange experience to hear Tories who had voted against equal marriage standing up for tax breaks for couples they didn't think had the right to marry.

That wasn't the only illogical case advanced by Tory MPs. They declared that married parents of poorer families are more likely to stay together. I am sorry if this sounds flippant, but that doesn't sound like an argument for giving them more money. We had Tory after Tory proclaiming that children, adults and even grandparents have better outcomes when marriage works. They confused correlations with causation and failed to make the link as to why these outcomes of marriage should result in a tax cut, Surely these people feel blessed enough and would rather, in a time of austerity, that the state used its resources to help those in greater need.

There was much talk of families in this debate - Tim Loughton MP referred to what "these families deserve".  This is just one example of the government being careless and potentially offensive in the way they framed this debate.  He and his colleagues were not speaking about helping families; they were talking about helping married couples with children. Unless they believe theirs is the only definition of a family. Just as oranges are not the only fruit, married couples with children are not the only families. Even then, their offer will only reach one third of married couples.

That is not my real problem with this tax policy, nor is the objection raised by many that widows, widowers, people who have left abusive relationships, kinship carers and many others would miss out. I don't want to talk about deserving and undeserving single parent families either. That is the politics of division - the politics of this Tory/Lib Dem government. It is none of my business if someone asks for my help, what their relationship status is, neither is it the business of government or HMRC. A parent raising a family on their own deserves our support if they want and need it. That should not be conditional on whether they were the "guilty" party in the breakup of a relationship, or if they were ever in a relationship, because we all have a stake in helping every family raise healthy, happy and useful citizens.

I am going to do it again, what young people describe as "oversharing". When my marriage of 23 years ended, it was a traumatic and upsetting experience. In many ways it was like bereavement, with a destructive helping of shame and guilt and, for afters, the strain of trying to support and reassure our four children. A tax break wouldn't have saved my marriage and when I was giving myself a hard time for having failed at the most important relationship of my adult life, I didn't need a letter from HMRC telling me that my tax code was going to change.

I, and their father, spent more than two decades doing our best to provide for my four children, to guide and support them in the hope they would become useful and caring members of society. My sons and daughter are now making families of their own. It makes me beyond happy to see that having children is something they want to do and how well they are doing it. I do my best not to interfere in their lives now they are grown, to accept them for the people they have become and the choices they have made. It is none of my business if they have chosen to marry or not to marry and it certainly is none of the business of this government.

Fiona O'Donnell is Labour MP for East Lothian

Fiona O'Donnell is Labour MP for East Lothian

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder