Giles Fraser’s recent article “Why won’t Remainers talk about family?” on unherd.com caused quite a stir on Twitter and elsewhere. There was quite a lot of anger and something of a “pile-on” regarding alleged casual sexism among other things.
Giles Fraser is an intelligent, decent and thoughtful person, and I find him worth listening to even though I disagree with him on many matters. His principled resignation as Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s and his exemplary work on behalf of parishioners facing deportation are worth mentioning.
The peg on which he hangs his piece is the story of a woman who rang her local GP surgery to ask if they could send someone round to clean up her elderly father who had soiled himself.
In the article he seems to be making a number of points, and maybe it is useful to try to identify these and look at them separately.
1) Many people in this country no longer feel sufficiently responsible for the care of their elderly parents and tend to think that such care should be the responsibility of the state.
2) There are too many old people living alone without much contact with their families.
3) Children as part of “the wider family and community” have a duty to the care of their parents.
4) In the past people stayed close to their places of birth and acknowledged and performed this duty.
5) In certain particular communities (he singles out immigrant communities of South Asian origin) people still acknowledge and perform this duty.
6) This all has something to do with Brexit, and Remainers are at fault, while freedom of movement is somehow bad because it encourages people to abandon their families.
All the first five points are undoubtedly true. But this did not prevent me from finding the article intensely annoying: and in a personal way too.
Fraser is indulging in a form of romantic nostalgic conservatism: he suffers from “golden age syndrome”. The kinds of communities that he romanticises were also censorious places where difference was not easily tolerated and values were enforced by gossip and ostracism.
Similarly, some young women in the modern communities that he singles out for praise, living in three-generation households with their new in-laws might also have a few things to say to open his eyes to the darker side of the fifth point above.
But there are other problems with Fraser’s “golden age”. Although I am happy to acquit Fraser of the casual sexism of which many have accused him, in the past that he refers to, the kind of care that he’s talking about almost always devolved upon women. Also lives were shorter and families larger. Long term disability was rarer. And the social changes that ended that golden age go back much further than he seems to think and are not only the result of neoliberal economics and globalisation. There’s a reason that there was a whole genre of 1950s and 60s literature about getting away from the stifling community one was born in.
There is no realistic political programme that can get us from here back to that golden age. You can’t get there from here. And his wish for a full-on “No Deal” Brexit could look extremely irresponsible in a few weeks time. Everyone knows that the poorest will suffer most in those circumstances as with every shock and crisis.
But here’s where it gets personal. I am a Remainer. I (together with my brother) looked after my father after he had a stroke and almost until his death. And yes, that did involve wiping his bum. Both of us lived about 90 minutes drive away. We would stay for half a week each.
Now: both of us had moved away, but neither had moved to another country. So this has nothing to do with “freedom of movement”.
But it gets worse. Fraser writes:
Always on the move, always hot desking. Short-term contracts. Laptops and mobiles - even the tools of modern workplace remind us that work no longer has any need of place.
Well: guess what? Just suppose that all of us had lived in the same street and my brother and I had been working in the same factory. We would not have been able to help my Dad, because he really couldn’t be left alone for more than about half an hour at a time. But luckily - very luckily, we were both able to do our work anywhere (at least for most of the time), thanks to modern technology. So the “digital nomad” that Fraser seems to despise is actually better placed to care for family than someone in a more traditional job.
And I’m afraid, now, as it has become personal, there has to be an ad hominem moment too. Giles Fraser (like me) went away to University, and then to a job away from his home area. Like me he is married to someone from another country. His own life does not seem to reflect the ideal form of life that he celebrates. Maybe close communities with a “web of support” are fine for the working classes in the North, but not so much for someone with Uppingham and Oxford on their CV.