Allan Massie: Why the Named Person proposal is deplorable

By Allan Massie CBE, journalist and author.

Ferdinand Mount wrote a book entitled “The Subversive Family”. The adjective surprised many.  The family subversive? Aren’t we all in favour of families? Don’t politicians speak of “family values” and talk up “hard-working families”?

Of course they do.

Nevertheless Mount’s title was well-chosen. The family is indeed subversive. It is subversive because it is private. It stands obstinately for the private sphere, for closing the door against the State and its agents. By its very existence it proclaims that private life is more important than public life.

This is why totalitarian regimes have always been hostile to the family.  Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Maoist and post-Mao China had this in common:  they saw families and family values as threats to the authority of the State.   All these totalitarian states encouraged, or even compelled, boys and girls to join youth movements where they were indoctrinated with the values of the State and even encouraged to spy on their parents and report any anti-State opinions or actions. China went so far as to require parents to have only one child. Whatever you think of the motive – a desire to curb population growth – you couldn‘t have a clearer example of the subjugation of the family to public policy.

We don’t of course live under a totalitarian regime. Nevertheless even in our liberal social-democratic Scotland, the State displays its distrust of the family and its eagerness to subject families to its authority. Naturally it insists on its own benevolence; it exercises control for our own good. But whatever the motive the autonomy of the family is curtailed.

Many think this desirable. They think it right that parents should now be forbidden from disciplining their children as children have been disciplined for generations.  We may agree with this. We may say that smacking children – hitting children- is always wrong. But the significance is undeniable: the State is entitled to interfere as it likes , and as it thinks fit, in family life.

Few of us would deny that such interference is sometimes justified, often justified. We expect the agencies of the State to protect children from maltreatment and abuse, and we criticise them severely whenever they fail to do so.

Yet we are in danger of indulging in an exaggerated, even hysterical, response to such cases. The fact is that the vast majority of children are neither maltreated nor abused. The vast majority of parents are caring and loving, doing their best, whatever their own circumstances, to bring up their children well. And one can go further: the majority, even, I would suggest, the vast majority, succeed in doing so. There are many broken families – but even broken families, ones in which the parents have separated  will more often than not find a means of creating a stable and loving home for their children.

The Scottish Government, however, in decreeing that every child should have a “named person” to act as a guardian, or protector of its interests and well-being, is in effect saying that parents cannot be trusted to care for their children. Many parents quite naturally find this offensive and insulting. They believe they are competent to care for their children and to decide what is in their best interests. More often than not, they will be right.

Withdrawal of trust such as this measure displays breeds further distrust. Parents will suffer from this; so will their children; and so also, one should add, will their teachers in school. Civil society operates best when people are trusted to behave well, or to try to behave well. It is corrupted when this trust is withdrawn, and this is precisely what the “named person” proposal does or threatens to do. It corrupts what is a natural relationship. Furthermore, and equally offensively, it implies that the State regards children as its property.

There are other reasons why this proposal is deplorable. The State and other public agencies have scarcely an unblemished record with regard to child care. Children have been abused in council-run children’s homes, and many children “in care” have suffered from a lack of the affection which they need and which the word “care” implies.

Yet the main objection to the proposal is philosophical. It tilts the balance in favour of the public sphere and the authority of the State. It invades the private sphere, opening the door of every home to the agents of the State. Expressing distrust of the family, it weakens the family, and will breed further distrust. It is a thoroughly deplorable measure – adopted of course for apparently benevolent reasons. It will require all the naturally subversive nature of the family to resist it.