FEMFACTS
18 Mar 2019

Why Giles Fraser is wrong to say Remainers don’t care about family

Brexit has become a culture war in the UK between traditionalists and “metropolitan elite”, and now attitudes towards family are on the frontline.  

Guest Mavens
Sian Norris NewsMavens, Europe
Why Giles Fraser is wrong to say Remainers don’t care about family - NewsMavens
Elderly woman, PixaBay

As the Brexit deadline approaches, the UK faces many uncertainties and the issue of elderly care is one of them. The UK already faces workforce shortages in the social care sector, but the proposed £30,000 minimum salary threshold for skilled workers to come to the UK after Brexit may make things even worse.

As discussed in a piece published in the Evening Standard, it’s estimated that 650,000 more social care workers will be needed by 2035 due to an aging population. Currently, more than 100,000 of them are citizens of EU countries and the non-British staff accounts “for a sixth of the 1.3 million workforce in the sector”. If they are unable to continue performing the jobs of “care workers, activities coordinators, personal care assistants and occupational therapists”, there is  a legitimate question of who will take care of elderly people after the UK leaves the European Union.

The article in the Standard prompted a response from Giles Fraser, a vicar and a writer, published in Unherd under the headline “Why Won’t Remainers Talk About Family”. Describing the question of “Who’ll look after our elderly post Brexit” as arrogant and callous, Fraser posits the idea that those who voted "Remain" in the 2016 Brexit referendum aren’t interested in taking on caring responsibilities in their own families.

WHAT’S THE CLAIM

Fraser writes that he is “longing for a full-on Brexit -- No Deal, please -- to come along and smash the living daylights out of the assumptions behind that question.

Sharing a “disturbing story” told to him by a GP (general practitioner -- i.e. your local family doctor), Fraser describes a middle-aged woman requesting care for her elderly father. The father had soiled himself, and his daughter was hoping someone from his doctor’s surgery could attend to clean him up. The doctor asked her if she had children, and whether when they needed a nappy change if she had asked a surgery for help.

"Ouch, what a question,” writes Fraser, before concluding that “children have a responsibility to look after their parents” and it is the “daughter of the elderly gentleman who should be wiping his bottom. This sort of thing is not something to subcontract.

He then continues to attack the “golden cow” of “freedom of movement” that allows the UK to import Eastern European workers to care for the British elderly. Taking aim at social mobility -- a “young person’s value” - that has encouraged working class kids to leave their hometowns, he writes that “Brexit seeks a reclamation of something we have lost. The ability to stay put and care for one another.

Fraser also criticizes the MP Luciana Berger, who spoke out about the impact Brexit will have on social care in the UK -- specifically the increased need for care combined with a loss of EU care workers:

Interestingly never once in the piece did she mention the word family. Indeed, the only way the piece related to family life and the mutual care that this has traditionally implied is through the idea that caring for a family member equals ‘lost earnings’”.

WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

The claim that it’s the daughter’s responsibility to “wipe her father’s bottom” is the most specifically gendered part of Fraser’s piece -- after this point, he continues to criticize “children” rather than “daughters” for not caring for their parents. But the example he leads with reflects wider cultural notions about women being carers and nurturers, inviting us to be disturbed that a woman should refuse to take on her caring responsibility. The fact that women are most likely to take on a caring role in a family means that his ideas about social care would inevitably disproportionately impact on women.

Firstly, it’s ridiculous to compare -- as Fraser’s GP friend does -- a father to a baby. This ignores the fact that elderly people may feel embarrassed to be naked in front of their adult child and may find it upsetting to ask their child to wipe an intimate area. It’s harder to imagine a reverse claim (“it is the son of the elderly lady who should be wiping her bottom”) being used in that argument. After all, we don’t associate men with taking on caring roles for female relatives, while we expect women to be willing and able to fulfil the role of unpaid carer.

And this is what the women, in fact, have been and still are doing. There are an estimated 6.5 million people in the UK caring for others, 40% of whom are informally looking after an elderly or sick relative. The majority of those carers are women. Globally, women take on 75% of unpaid care and domestic work. In the UK, women take on 60% of such work.

Fraser’s claim that people aren’t caring for family members is simply untrue and ignores how women are already shouldering unpaid caring responsibilities. But it also overlooks the fact that an elderly parent might have a range of healthcare issues that require the care of a professional subcontractor and that medical care often cannot be left in the hands of a family member.

Furthermore, the lost earnings which he presents as a trivial matter when it comes to care for family members, are not an “idea”. They are a real outcome of people giving up work to care for family members. And because unpaid care work is overwhelmingly performed by women, it is women in the UK who would be made poorer by a return to the traditional care model that Fraser promotes. It’s not the only outcome either -- when women are made poorer, they are in turn made more dependent on male family members, which is one of the risk factors that exacerbates domestic abuse.

Fraser’s article contains unfair assumptions and paints an inaccurate nostalgic picture of a past that never existed, blaming the ongoing social care crisis in the UK on social mobility which created a lack of family and community cohesion. But people have always migrated and moved to find work and start new lives -- it’s just that most of those people were men. While there are important criticisms that can and should be made about social mobility, Fraser ignores the role it has played in women’s economic emancipation and social equality.

This represents one of the key issues with Brexit and populist right wing movements in general: a hazy nostalgia that wants to revive a “good old days”. The problem is, the “good old days” Brexiteers and populists evoke was a time when women had few freedoms and few rights -- a time when women were forced to “stay put” and denied education, working rights, and bodily autonomy. Fraser tweeted that “the past was better. Much better” -- but better for whom? The answer is almost always wealthy, white, straight men.

This criticism reflects a right wing populist view that feminism and “gender ideology” have undermined traditional family values, broken up family structures, and harmed those in need of care (mainly children but the elderly too). The traditional values which Fraser defends as forming “the basis for the most effective form of social security the world has even known: family and community life” have a disproportionate impact on women. They confine women to the domestic rather than the public sphere, attack a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and integrity, and position women as subservient to male dominance. At the same time, they ignore the realities of elderly care which, in many cases, requires a skilled workforce rather than the attention of a family member, however dedicated he or she may be.

CONCLUSION

The manner in which this article presents social care, ignoring both the unpaid care work already carried out by women and the existing need for skilled social care workers, we rate as manipulation of facts. The inaccurate view of the past where families were supposedly static and decrying progressive values as destructive to the family we rate as an example of antifeminist backlash.

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