ALONE among blogs, broadcasts and news reporting, the Conservative Woman remains faithful to what this recent article called the ‘bedrock of conservatism’ – ie responsibility, duty, and the family. So it was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected – given the lengths that governments and education and bureaucracy have done in the last fifty years to ‘redefine’ (i.e. destroy) the traditional values of the family group – that in a recent UNICEF report, the UK came very low in its ranking of family-friendly nations.
Looking at how family-friendly the policies of 31 rich countries in the West are considered to be, Sweden ranked the highest and Switzerland the lowest, with the UK coming near the bottom.
The countries were judged according to:
- the duration of parental leave at full-pay equivalent
- child care services for children aged 0-6 years
UNICEF’s early childhood development policy aims to support families in providing their children with the nurturing environment and stimulating experiences needed for healthy brain development. Executive Director Henrietta Fore stated: ‘We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children.’ For UNICEF, this equates to six months of well-paid leave for parents, then universal access to quality affordable childcare from birth to school entry.
Among the information detailed, it appears that most fathers decline to take up the offer of paid leave (in contrast to the two photographs used in the report, showing fathers cradling their newborns – not a mother in sight.) There’s also a lot about breast-feeding, including guaranteed breaks at work and safe locations to breast-feed and pump. (Breast-pumping in the workplace – well, there’s a new one . . .)
It’s worth looking more clearly at these UNICEF recommendations, because it seems the objectives have far more to do with government interference than with encouraging committed, hands-on and competent parents. What exactly are the state-funded family welfare benefits in the three countries noted above, and how do they differ?
Sweden is recognised for its generous family policies which are now organised around goals including economic security, physical well-being, children’s rights, and gender equality. The country spends over 3 per cent of GDP on benefits relating to children and families, which is very high among EU member states. But there’s also much more – massively subsidised childcare, free health and dental care, free access to education and libraries. These benefits are universal, provided through cash and services. And they apply to individuals permanently residing in Sweden. Pre-school is available from 1-6 years and free for 15 hours a week.
This is all very different from the UK – though similar to other Scandinavian countries including Finland and Denmark, where taxes are very high, but taxpayers have been accustomed to a high return in terms of services and social returns. In the UK, mothers receive a child allowance, earners are entitled to a child tax allowance and family income supplement, but much of this is income-related (although this is changing with the introduction of the Universal Benefit). The main provision of non-family childcare consists of nurseries, child-minding and playgroups, mainly via the private sector. Early-years education allows 15 hours for 3-to-4-year-olds, government-funded. Childcare is found to be affordable by only 21 per cent of parents. And all of this is seriously compromised by low marriage rates, increasingly accessible divorce and the reliance of single parents on state financing.
But in Switzerland, where I live, the country is being perceived by the UN, and reported by the EU, as the Big Baddie, letting down families and neglecting child care policies. Well, is it? The UN, and certainly the EU, won’t like this, but the Swiss source of family law is based on matrimonial union and their legal offspring. How quaint! Swiss law does not provide for forms of parental leave allowing both mothers and fathers to interrupt their professional activities after a birth or an adoption. There is maternity protection only.
So – UNICEF – wherein lies family-friendly? It looks to me like your philosophy depends on ‘state intervention good, stay-at-home caring mums bad’. The real needs of a family-friendly scenario are oh so old hat! One parent earning, supportive and protective; a second home-based caring nurturing parent; all children valued and raised confident, self-reliant, and independent.
I certainly don’t see this in the state-supported ‘families’ in the UK. But I do see it in Switzerland, UN-demoted to the bottom of the league. So just how deprived are the wretched offspring of one of the world’s richest countries? As far as I can see, Swiss parents know what they’re doing, and want the very best for their children, but Swiss-style. Swiss society sees welfare as a safety net only, and allows parents to bring up their children according to traditional Swiss values – allowing them to grow up as self-confident, self-reliant and independent from an early age. (The only snowflakes visible from our terrace are way up there on the mountain tops.)
I quote from Margaret Oertig-Davidson, and what she has to say about Swiss child-rearing.
‘When my daughter started Swiss playgroup at the age of three, I attended my first Swiss parents’ evening. I was surprised when the leader said one of their aims was to help children to play alone. This was my introduction to Swiss pedagogical principles. I had realised that Swiss mothers who still washed their windows weekly would have less time to play with their toddlers or organise activities such as finger-painting for early learning. However I hadn’t realised until then that the professionals would recommend leaving children to play alone.’
What exactly do Swiss parents value? And just how much state input is considered beneficial? The Swiss seem to have clear values, and want parental care much more than state intervention, so they get a rubbish score from the EU/UN interventionists. And it seems that other surveys actually think that Swiss family policies are among the best in the world. If you move from EU/UN sources to US-based reporting, you will find that Switzerland is ranked 7th in the world for the best place to raise a child. They may not pay massive subsidies to enable parents to off-load the early-years care of their children. But why would a caring society want to do that anyway?
And should we be moved by a recent Guardian article, which despairs that new UK mothers don’t get enough support, and are suffering mental health issues because of this? Where is government support? It’s surely because the traditional family networks are not there any more. It used to be Mum, or even Grandma, or other close relatives, who were there for the new young mums. Dismantle the traditional networks, and they are left with the notion that only the state can help them. If only . . .
I have some sympathy with any research groups finding fault with UK policies. After all, virtually all UK institutions are now unfit for purpose. But for the UN, and in tandem with the EU, to find fault with Swiss policies, especially about families, I find spurious. The fact is, Switzerland represents everything that the EU finds tricky about family policy, and certainly wants to destroy. Because of course Switzerland represents everything that the EU, and indeed the UN, want to destroy. Why – since it is one of the richest and best-governed countries in Europe?
Why would a progressive government (as the EU terms itself) want to destroy the traditional elements of such a successful country as Switzerland. What is it that it doesn’t like, and wants to destroy? This is just a selection:
- A fiercely independent nation for over 900 years, which continues to rank its culture beyond any other consideration, including religion (so no new minarets, but plenty of church bells and the old festivals, even Christihimmelfahrt.)
- A fiercely patriotic country, proud of its national flag (from my village window I can see at least seven flags flying, from gardens and chimneys, and it’s not even National Day.)
- A commitment to self-confidence and personal responsibility – as demonstrated in their child-rearing philosophy)
- A country which controls its borders professionally and manages immigration to its advantage. (This, a country which has 30 per cent of residents who are not Swiss citizens).
- Citizenship granted only after a rigorous process, including language skills and local and historic knowledge.
- Swiss government archetypically subsidiarity-based. Management is very localised, and government decentralised. This is the country of direct democracy.
- And it hasn’t voted to join the EU, although it has agreed 120 bilateral agreements with Brussels (the dangerous enticements that the EU will certainly want to exploit shortly . . .)
- But most of all, this little country is rich, and has one of the highest GDP to population numbers in the world.
So for the Swiss, what’s not to like? They value all of that, and will not relinquish any of it without a fight.
It seems, therefore, that the EU is starting a very dodgy disagreement with the Swiss. (As if it hasn’t anything more to worry about.) But it has given the Swiss a deadline to agree this new treaty, and the Swiss aren’t having it. So the Brussels bully boys have cut off the Swiss trading platform with the EU. Just to let them know who’s in charge. The Swiss have countered by refusing EU traders the right to trade on the Swiss exchange. Evidently the EU reckon they can get their own way through economy and money. Oh dear – they don’t know the Swiss.
What the EU dislikes most of all about the Swiss is that they are not just independent-minded, but that they maintain their own well-trained and well-armed defence force. Something the EU hasn’t quite managed yet. So, thus far, Swiss families can look forward to being well protected.