The new Tory policy to expand free childcare will be welcomed by struggling families in Britain, but what ideologies lie behind it? Colin Wilson puts it in the context of right-wing projects to police immigration and queerness, and increase the white British population under the far-right rhetoric of ‘The Great Replacement.’

Rishi Sunak’s pro-birth policies. Photo on left: Rishi Sunak Launches Pharmacy First with Maria Caulfield. Picture by The Conservative Party. Photo on right: Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester 2021. Picture by Andrew Parsons CCHQ / Parsons Media. Both used under CC license 2.0.

Early in April, the Tories announced that they would now provide free childcare for over 150,000 two-year-olds. Sunak hailed the policy as part of a ‘brighter future for families’. Around the world, the right attacks trans people, queer people and abortion rights, all in the name of the ‘traditional family’. One of the things worrying them most is the falling number of kids being born. In the 1960s, the most common number of children for a 34-year-old woman to have was three in the US and two or three in Britain. Now, in both countries, the most common number of kids for a woman that age is zero.

This is part of a long-term trend. Back in 1950, the ‘fertility rate’, the average number of children born to each woman, was just under 3 in high-income countries and just under 5 globally. The ‘replacement level’, below which populations start to decline, is 2.1. High-income countries fell below this level in the mid-70s, followed by Eastern Europe and Southeast and Asia in the 1990s, and Latin America and South Asia are doing so round about now. In about ten years, global population will start to decline.

The general consensus is that the birth rate declines as people’s lives improve – as contraception becomes more easily available and women get more access to education. Women become more able to control their bodies, and so the number of kids they have declines towards the number they would ideally like. However, in many countries, the process has gone farther than that – many people now end up with fewer children than they ideally wanted. In South Korea, people wanted on average 1.9 children but had 0.9, in Spain they wanted 2.1 but had 1.2, in Russia they wanted 2.5 but had 1.5 and so on. In Britain people want an average of 2.2 children – but the fertility rate fell below that level in the early 1970s. Between then and about five years ago it remained between 1.6 and 2. As of 2022, the most recent year for which figures are available, it’s down to 1.5.

It’s not hard to see why this might be. In 1961, only 35 percent of married women worked outside the home. Typically, women left paid work after they married or after their first child was born, and returned to it only when their children reached a certain age – after they started school, or sometimes only after they finished school. It was possible, back in the 1950s and 60s, for many families to live on the husband’s wage. This is the kind of life described by Gabriel Winant in his excellent book The Next Shift – among white families in post-World War Two Pittsburgh, men worked in steel mills and allied industries, while women organised their and their children’s lives around their husband’s shifts at the plant. Of course if that was a ‘family friendly’ world, it was also in many ways a reactionary one, where in Britain abortion was illegal and thousands of gay men were in prison.

In any case, that world has gone. Now the typical picture is that women take time off for each child and then return to work. On average, women in Britain come back to work after 39 weeks, when their statutory maternity pay ends. The fact that women can’t afford to stay off work longer is clear from the fact that lower-income working mothers come back to work sooner, after an average 23 weeks. Financial pressures will be greater for those families – around 1 in 8 of the total – made up of lone-parent households headed by women.

But even with two parents, people are struggling to combine work and childcare. The charity Working Families reports that over two-thirds of working parents do some kind of flexible working, such as hybrid working, flexible hours, part time or term-time only work. Part-time work is the worst of these options, since it means a loss of pay, and so 63 percent of mothers and 89 percent of fathers work full-time. Access to flexible working varies enormously between different industries – it’s widely available in banking, finance, nonprofit and marketing jobs, and less available in healthcare, manufacturing, retail, education and transport. And both parents need to work so as to cover childcare costs, which for full-time care amount to thousands every year.

If the situation in Britain is grim, that in the US – the global base for many right-wing ‘pro-family’ organisations – is even worse. 1 in 4 women in the US, where women have no right to paid maternity leave, return to work two weeks after childbirth. In 2020 the Guardian interviewed Jessica Rebeschini who, two weeks after an emergency C-section, was working 45-hour weeks as a waitress, doing night shifts and carrying heavy trays. Her experience is far from exceptional.

It’s unsurprising, then, that more and more people are having fewer and fewer children. But if the problem is that people can’t afford kids, is the answer for governments to subsidise childcare, provide child benefits and generally make children more affordable? The hard right Hungarian government has provided lavish incentives – every married couple gets an interest-free €30,000 loan if the woman is aged 18 to 40 and pregnant, as well as subsidised loans to buy or build a house, and grants to buy a bigger family car. Yet last year, fewer children were born in Hungary than at any time since records began. OECD countries have more than doubled spending on family-friendly policies in the last forty years – in Britain it has increased three-fold – yet fertility rates continue to plunge.

The reason, perhaps, is that lower fertility isn’t just caused by the cost of children, but by the overall insecurity which results from neoliberalism. For example, people typically want to have secure and good-quality housing before they start a family. In the 50s and 60s, when up to 400,000 council homes were built each year, working-class people could wait a few years for one of those, while others got a mortgage. Since the 1980s, getting a mortgage has been the usual option. But now rocketing house prices have transformed private renting from a temporary stage which people went through in their 20s to a tenure from which no escape seems possible, and who wants to have children when a no-fault eviction can happen at any time? What’s more, forty years ago parents could look forward to their children having a better standard of living than they had had – now that certainty has faded. Young people enter a competitive job market either at a disadvantage because they didn’t go to university, or in tens of thousands of debt because they did.

The right is all too happy with some aspects of the 1950s – such as attacking queer people and banning abortion – but they have no way of bringing back other parts of the picture, such as male wages that can support a family or good jobs for those leaving education without a degree. The longest boom in capitalism’s history is gone for good. So why does right-wing hankering after the ‘traditional family’ persist, along with concern about lower birth rates?

There are several interconnected reasons. The right sees endless economic growth, linked to population growth, as the only way for people to lead decent lives – though on a finite planet, growth has to stop somewhere. They are horrified as they think about growing numbers of older people, cared for by a larger proportion of younger people, with fewer and fewer of those younger people contributing to profitability. In their terms, this comes down to asking ‘who will pay for all this care for the elderly?’ – but isn’t a world where elders are valued and cared for better than one where the average pay of a FTSE 100 Chief Exec comes to £3.8 million?

As well as its roots in capitalist economics, much of the right’s defence of the family is ideological. Promoting childbirth and the ‘traditional family’ fits with the transphobia and homophobia increasingly embraced by the right internationally, turning workers against each other. That becomes easier to do when many people – though not, of course, everyone – think of having kids as a key part of their life, a huge source of satisfaction and self-worth. Now those people may see children as something that will never be part of their life – or if they do have kids, they face a desperate struggle to keep their families functioning. That desperation is something on which the right can feed.

Issues about reproduction are also inseparable from discussions of race. Capitalist economies have always had two main ways of ensuring that there are enough workers able and willing to work each Monday morning – which authors like Tithi Bhattacharya have called the ‘social reproduction’ of the working class. The first is privatised reproduction in the family, and the second is immigration. 

Immigration has been vital for over a century now as a way of bringing up to strength a workforce in countries like Britain or the US which isn’t reproducing itself. States constantly turn to immigration, and just as constantly bemoan doing so. In 1905, US President Roosevelt condemned small families as a sign of moral decline and what he called ‘race suicide’. In 1907, in a Fabian pamphlet entitled The Decline in the Birth Rate, Sidney Webb suggested that if British people didn’t have enough children, the result would be ‘this country gradually falling to the Irish and the Jews’. In 1949, the report of a Royal Commission on Population reported that declining fertility threatened not just the British economy but Britain’s place in the world, which depended on breeding enough white people:

The sense of unity which animates… the self-governing parts of the British Commonwealth is largely dependent on the preponderance of British stock in the population of the Dominions, and it is of the utmost importance… that the fresh accessions to the population of the Dominions which take place in future years should contain a large proportion of persons of British origin.

Immigration did not seem a feasible alternative:

Immigration on a large scale into a fully established society like ours could only be welcomed without reserve if the immigrants were of good human stock and were not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged in it…

However, by the time the Commission’s racist anxieties had become public, the Empire Windrush had already brought the first migrants to Britain from the Caribbean. Immigration has continued since, so that 1 in 6 people in Britain were born outside of this country – the percentage varies from 5 percent in North East England to 37 percent in London. And for all their right-wing attacks on migrants, there is no sign that the British government wants immigration to stop. The Tory media is hysterical about just under 30,000 people coming to Britain in ‘small boats’ in 2023. Yet the Tory government, faced with a crisis in the care workforce, granted care worker visas to over 146,000 people between February 2022 and October 2023. The right wants to have it both ways – to have migrants come here and work, and to then attack them for doing so.

The paranoid fantasies of the far right, their claims that we are experiencing the ‘Great Replacement’ – the replacement of the ‘indigenous’ population by migrants – suggest that what is happening is the erasure of white people. Those fantasies also suggest that an all powerful ‘gender’ movement is attacking the whole concept of men and women – in the words of the far-right Italian activist Jonghi Lavarini, ‘they want us all to be faggots and half-castes’. Far-right pro-family policies aren’t just about having more children, but about reinforcing gender roles and heterosexuality so as to ensure racially pure reproduction.

We need to fight all this, but the good news is that we are well placed to do that. Far from migrants harming social reproduction by using scarce resources, they are supporting health and care services – just as Caribbean nurses did in the 1960s, and just as an NHS workforce with over a quarter of the staff from ethnic minorities does today. Most people now think that there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, while only 1 in 5 people thought that twenty years ago. The overwhelmingly white Britain of the 1950s, with women in the home and queer people silenced or in jail, has gone for good. We need to keep it that way, but we also need to go further and give people more choice about the part of the world they live in and the families they form – but to do that, we’ll need to end capitalism.


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