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Social Policy & Families: Conservative Governments (1979 - 1997)

AS, A Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 27 Sept 2019

The Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, from 1979-1997, were greatly influenced by the New Right perspective.

This influenced their policies in a range of areas, but in terms of their thinking on families it meant:

  • Preference for traditional nuclear families
  • Encouraging individual and parental responsibility (especially paternal responsibility) and also responsibility for elderly relatives, etc.
  • Encouraging mothers to stay at home
  • Concern that the welfare system might encourage non-traditional family forms and irresponsible behaviour.

Margaret Thatcher (1988) described the family as “a nursery, a school, a hospital, a leisure place, a place of refuge and a place of rest” as well as “the building block of society”. This is a very traditional and, some would argue, idealistic view of the family, which echoes much functionalist and New Right thought.

This approach led to a number of interesting policy developments including:

  • The Children Act 1989 – a piece of legislation that clearly outlined the rights of children
  • The Child Support Agency, 1993 – established to ensure absent fathers paid maintenance for the upbringing of their children (this included chasing down fathers where there was no longer contact, etc.) This also meant that, where possible, money to support lone parent families came from absent parents as opposed to the government.
  • Married Mens Tax Allowance – A long-term feature of the UK tax system had been a higher tax-free allowance for married men than single men. Until later in the Thatcher/Major era, married women’s tax affairs were dealt with along with their husband’s, rather than independently, even if they worked full time. There was a change towards individual taxation, to reflect the changed workplace, but the New Right governments tried to maintain a tax allowance for men whose wives did not work, in order to encourage traditional family structures. This was eventually removed under a Labour government (replaced with working-family tax credits for families with children) but has been reintroduced (although today either gender could theoretically receive the allowance providing the other is not earning enough to pay tax). It is ironic that a government led by the country’s foremost working mum should have sought to deter mothers from working, through the tax system.
  • Proposed changes to divorce rules – there was a wish on the part of the Thatcher government to make divorce more difficult. There was a moral panic in the 1980s that too many British marriages were ending in divorce. The plan was to have an enforced “cooling off” period of a year between separation and divorce, however the plans were never actually put into practice, partly because of opposition to the idea, and partly because of the impracticality of actually enforcing it.
  • Section 28 – The government introduce a rule, in 1988, that prevented local government from “promoting” homosexuality and included the provision that schools could not teach “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Here the government went beyond promoting the ideal of the traditional nuclear family to directly attacking and indeed denying an alternative family structure.
  • Back to Basics – As prime minister, John Major urged a “back to basics” approach, which he put forward as traditional family values. It was, at the time, associated with rhetorical attacks on lone-parents by some Conservative ministers with a clear New Right perspective (such as John Redwood and Peter Lilley) with some making connections between even the murder of Jamie Bulger and the lone-parent family backgrounds of his killers. The “campaign” did not translate into clear policies, however, and is mostly remembered now because of the large number of “sex scandals” that came to light which were used to paint ministers as hypocrites for preaching traditional morality for others but not practising it themselves.

Evaluating conservative governments, 1979-1997

  • Considering how important family and traditional family values was said to be by New Right politicians in the 1980s and 1990s, there was actually not a huge amount of ground-breaking new policy in this area.
  • Marxists argue that the New Right is really an ideology to justify policies that benefit the ruling class and capitalism. They would point to something like the Child Support Agency and say that while the goal appeared to be encouraging parental responsibility, really it was all about cutting state expenditure and therefore cutting taxes for the rich (or saving public money to spend on things that benefited the rich). If the absent parent could be tracked down and made to pay maintenance, this reduced the amount of money that the government may have to find in order to support the families in question.
  • In many ways the governments of this era were swimming against the tide: their ideology was to protect the traditional family, but this was the period when there was the largest growth in family diversity, the largest increase in divorces, the largest reduction in marriages, important changes in attitudes to sexual orientation, etc. While it would be future governments that legislated to recognise family diversity (for example introducing civil partnerships and later gay marriage), family diversity became a feature of UK society under these governments. In that sense, if their aim was to defend the traditional nuclear family, with a male breadwinner and female housewife, then they failed in this area.
  • Some would ask whether trying to encourage a particular family form through tax and benefit changes is a good idea in any case. A little more or less money seems a particularly bad reason to get married or for a couple to stay together.


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