The European Right’s “Pro-Family” Turn Is Just Austerity in Disguise

Across Europe, the Right has taken a pronatalist turn. Despite claiming to support mothers, its initiatives — largely ineffectual, according to many studies — serve to reinforce patriarchal gender roles and protect the interests of employers.

Tory MP Miriam Cates speaks during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse in the UK, June 9, 2023. (Danny Lawson / PA Images via Getty Images)

“The one critical outcome that liberal individualism has failed to deliver: babies.” This remark, made by the British Conservative MP Miriam Cates at the National Conservative Conference in London in May, typifies a pronatalist turn that much of the European right has embraced. In the UK, the birth rate has fallen from 2.6 in 1960 to 1.6 today. For conservatives this is “the one overarching threat to Western society.”

Cates grew up in Sheffield, a former steel city in the north of England. She was elected in 2019. She is one of the new Conservative MPs who have broken through the “red wall”: the line on the electoral map of England where the Tory blue of the South and the Midlands gave way to the reliable Labour votes of the postindustrial North. These were also areas that voted “leave” in Britain’s referendum on EU membership in 2016, as Cates’s constituency did with a 60 percent majority.

Unable to transform the right-wing populism that led to Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory into a coherent electoral program, Britain’s Tories are likely to lose at the next election. This has created opportunities for figures like Cates.

A millennial “mum of three,” Cates posts her parliamentary speeches on Instagram. Styled with long floral dresses and long blonde hair, she claims to speak to and for the squeezed millennial mother at a moment when the costs of childcare, housing, and living have reached record highs. Motivating her attempt to rebrand conservativism is a recognition of two of the fundamental weaknesses of the modern right.

The first is that the Tories have struggled to attract the young. The second is that they have struggled to attract women. In the last election, 62 percent of those under thirty-five voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The figure for women under thirty-five is 65 percent. In a country where wealth maps as much onto generation as onto social class, young voters are impacted disproportionately by inflation and the current cost-of-living crisis. Generational inequality is especially stark in housing, in a market of rising rental and house prices beyond the reach of those without inherited wealth. In the context of a Labour Party that has moved increasingly to the right on childcare and housing, the Tories have offered some response to these issues that could go some way toward solving its electoral “women problems.”

In March, for the first time in British history, the Conservatives released a new budget that promised state-funded childcare for children aged nine months to five years, for thirty hours a week, across thirty-nine weeks of the year. This underfunded commitment, made in a sector in which low wages and poor conditions predominate, is likely to put further strain on Britain’s privately run childcare industry. But the fact that such a move has been countenanced indicates not only a new electoral strategy for the Right but also a new form of Conservative pronatalism, likely to benefit from the Left’s inability to produce an alternative.

Austerity for Children

There have never been so many young children living at — or born to — 10 Downing Street as in the thirteen years since David Cameron took power in 2010. Despite this, a positive vision for childhood has been absent from Conservative policies or manifestos in the twenty-first century. One of the party’s flagship austerity policies was the country’s first explicitly anti-child initiative: from 2016 the government withdrew child benefits — an allowance paid to parents for their children — from parents with more than two children. The aim of this “two-child policy” was to incentivize parents to return to work rather than having more children. Its effects were stark: 1.5 million minors fell into poverty.

The callous two child policy expressed the need for the Conservative Party to increase workforce participation. This has only become more crucial in the tight labor markets across both the United States and UK since the end of the pandemic, and as Conservatives repeatedly promise to cut the immigration on which the labor market depends. However, Conservatives are unwilling to invest the infrastructure — state-funded childcare, and affordable transport and housing — that would allow people to both work and have children. Unprepared to provide social support, they will continue to struggle with the consequences of a shrinking workforce for decades to come. New workers aren’t being born.

Liberals, meanwhile, have argued that women’s equality depends on mothers’ access to the labor market. Any government that ensured this would see a return on their investment through the increased GDP that employed mothers generate. There is a neat parallel between Labour’s argument for childcare provision, and Conservative benefit caps: the primary goal is securing women’s workforce participation by relieving them of the burdens of childrearing.

Liberal feminist lobbies have worked closely with the current Conservative government to produce its new childcare plans. In doing so they have given up on changing the status of women in society more radically in favor of promoting women’s economic citizenship through paid work. Women in the workplace are revenue generators, while the care work traditionally gendered as female remains undervalued. Indeed, the new childcare scheme hinges on care work remaining undervalued: it is only by depressing the conditions and pay of childcare-sector workers that the government’s plans for universal childcare from nine months old can add up.

Pronatalist, Anti-State

Breathlessly spoken of as a “darling of the party,” Cates is an ambitious backbencher. She represents a wider network of socially conservative, evangelical Tory MPs working together on a raft of policies that they term “the new social covenant.” Designed to address the cost-of-living crisis as it impacts women and “young families,” their approach is at odds with that of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Cates views Conservative plans to fund childcare for children under five with suspicion. She imagines that free childcare will undermine the very thing that might increase Britain’s birth rate: the status of mothers.

The thinking goes: if mothers’ work can be “outsourced to the state,” then it has little value. If the mothers’ primary contribution to the economy is through taxation and paid work, the greatest contribution they make to society — producing children — is forgotten. The so-called new social covenant seeks ways to recognize the traditional work of women in traditional ways. It does not suggest direct monetary payment for care work (or indeed wages for housework), but that couples with children could share their income tax allowance. This would create perverse and socially conservative incentives. By increasing the income tax allowance of the working parent — who is most likely to be the man — these schemes would encourage mothers to remain out of the labor force and at home with children.

This kind of individualized incentive to procreate has become the mainstay of right-wing pronatalist governments across Europe. In Hungary, couples are offered a one-off loan upon the birth of their first child, totaling £25,000. Its repayment is delayed if they bear a second child within six years and written off if they bear a third. In Russia, a “maternity capital” grant is made per child — around £6,000. In Poland, an ongoing benefit known as the Family 500+ allocates around £100 per child per month, after the second child. The results of these schemes have been — in demographic terms — unimpressive. Nonetheless, the Right across Europe and the world have praised them. In Italy, the government has mimicked these Eastern European initiatives in the form of the Family Act, a monthly allowance paid per child; in Greece the government has introduced a £1,000 baby bonus paid after birth.

In Italy and in Greece, the Right and center right have presented pronatalist policies as a response to the rapidly aging population. References to babies as the wage earners and taxpayers of the future is the acceptable face of pronatalism. It has provided a language with which Britain’s right, constrained by the generally liberal outlook of its fellow citizens, has felt comfortable associating itself. Referencing the falling tax revenue of the childless future, Cates said, “if you think things are underfunded now, just wait for what’s coming down the road.”

But in Europe, pronatalism has frequently meant white supremacism. This connection has been made the most explicit in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. At a demography conference in 2020, the far-right conspiracy theory of the “great replacement” was openly referenced by the prime minister and his associates. “There are,” Orbán claimed, “political forces in Europe who want a replacement of population for ideological or other reasons.” To ensure its survival, Europe must, his families’ minister argued, cease to be “the continent of the empty crib.” Cates also, more subtly, talks about the British population falling “below replacement levels,” one of several racist dog whistles in her National Conservatism primetime speech.

Pronatalist polices — whether enacted or envisaged — tend to have a quiet twin: anti-immigration lawmaking. In all of Europe’s right-wing states, populist anti-immigration policies have led to militarized borders, ever-decreasing provision for asylum seekers, and the demonization of economic migrants. Poland’s prime minister put it explicitly: “In Germany, billions of euros are spent on support for immigrants, but here these billions of złotys are spent on Polish families.” Cates does so more indirectly: it is immigrants, she claims, who are to blame for the housing crisis leaving “British families” behind. Binding electoral concerns that have tended to speak to women and younger votes — children and homes — to the xenophobic populism of the swaggering masculinity of the Brexit campaign, pronatalism may be a vote winner for the Conservatives.

Labour Pains

In the mid-twentieth century, Labour was the party of pronatalism. It designed a socially conservative social democracy that put the bearing and raising of future workers at its heart, through practices including universal education and health care, and a universal child benefit. It was, in some ways, a victim of its own successes. From the 1970s, better educated, healthier, and wealthier women began to have fewer children. But this coincided with widespread fears about a global “population bomb” — a fear that there were too many people in the world. For a party that had once seen children as a national product, pronatalism fell out of vogue. In the 1990s, the Labour Party rediscovered children, now — in line with wider global discourses — as bearers of individual rights. Influenced by its connections with international humanitarian NGOs, Labour under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown waged war on child poverty, with a particular focus on early-years care via a Sure Start program that mirrored Head Start in the United States. Under the austerity government of David Cameron’s Conservatives from 2010, child welfare services quickly dwindled.

From 2015, Corbyn’s Labour promised to reverse cuts to early-years spending and reinstate Sure Start. Labour’s 2019 manifesto also promised childcare provision, with a greater focus on sustainability through increased recruitment to early-years roles, and the expansion of nursery schools funded by local councils (most early-years providers in Britain are private and for-profit). Momentum, the left-wing pressure group founded by supporters of Labour’s former leader, had its own “kids” section, which organized crèches at conferences and planned to start Black Panther–inspired breakfast clubs. This optimistic, pro-child moment on the Left did not outlast the decimation of its home in a mainstream political party.

In the seventy-five years that have passed since Labour’s social democratic welfare state birthed a baby boom, children have transformed: from future economic producers to bearers of rights; before settling into their most recent role, as consumers of dwindling resources. The Labour Party, when it speaks of childcare now, speaks of it as a women’s issue. Doing so, it places itself alongside liberal feminist lobbies that see gender equality purely in terms of equal access to paid work.

But Keir Starmer’s Labour is also striving to brand itself as the party of “fiscal responsibility.” Starmer has reneged on past commitments to fight child poverty — free school meals, lifting the two-child benefit cap — and has stated that the Conservative offer of free childcare for over-nine-month-olds is unaffordable. Labour, also, has no program to eradicate child poverty, or improve the economic prospects facing the squeezed millennials who choose to remain child-free.

Cheaper Than Childcare

Infrastructure is costly but culture wars are cheap. In the absence of real political commitments to children, it is here that the right wing of the Conservative Party is looking to draw support. It is pulling a hollow, centrist Labour Party along with it. Culture wars are more than a “distraction” from meaningful politics: they do real harm, and, for those on the European right, “culture” is the war that they want most to win.

Pronatalism is not just about whiteness. In postcommunist states, pronatalism has been about reversing the relative autonomy of women under socialism and reestablishing “traditional” patriarchal family structures. This is the goal of a group of Christian, socially conservative backbenchers in Britain’s Conservative Party, too. An evangelical Christian, Cates believes that the marital nuclear family is “objectively the most successful institution for the raising of children.”

Her plan for individualized solutions to the childcare crisis — tax credits that bind families to one another — expresses her view that children need care from their mothers, specifically. A small number of liberal career women might actively want to work while their children are young. But, she says, her constituents (whom she represents as universally white and working class) would rather be at home with their children than “stacking shelves and working at call centers.” In her speeches in and beyond Parliament, she hams up the drudgery of caring for children (listening to her, one would be forgiven for believing that “changing nappies” accounts for most of the time spent with infants), but paints anyone who would rather be doing otherwise as unrepresentative and elite.

Women who have children older have fewer children. Women who stay in education longer have children later. This is another trend that the Conservative far right seeks to reverse. So-called low-value university degrees lure young people away from their hometowns, meaning not only that they have children later but that, when they do, they lack the support of intergenerational family networks, instead expecting the state to step in. (Cates overstates this phenomenon: 73.8 percent of adults in Britain live a forty-five minutes’ drive from at least one of their parents.) Cates’s traditional Britain is one of home, hearth, and family — both nuclear and intergenerational. The state should step in only to bolster the infrastructure of the family: the family that the state itself has historically undermined, through the mass education that generated the demands of feminism.

Attacks on the bodily autonomy of women and LGBTQ people are inexorably bound to the evangelical right’s vision of biological motherhood and patriarchal family. Cates and her allies have consistently voted against legislation that would protect or enhance the accessibility of abortion. It is in her constant attacks on trans people that she has found allies beyond the Conservative Party. Popular forum-based website Mumsnet, (described by Edie Miller as “to transphobia as 4chan is to American fascism”) celebrates the “bravery” of Cates speaking out against “gender ideology” alongside J. K. Rowling and Kathleen Stock.

The influence of culture wars shows in Labour’s bending to them. Starmer has been walking back his previous commitments to trans rights as fast as his public spending promises. In a recent interview at “Mumsnet HQ,” he suggested that Gillick competence (a legal precedent that enables over sixteen-to-eighteen-year-olds to make medical decisions — including about hormone therapy, contraception, and abortion — without parental consent) should be abolished. He has also stated, echoing the language of the “gender critical” anti-trans movement, “I believe that a woman is an adult female.”

Culture wars are also happening more quietly, directly over the heads of the babies whom they claim to save. In Britain, the Right has gained from the decimation of child welfare services. In May 2020, the Evangelical Alliance — a British organization with strong ties to the evangelical right in the United States — estimated that, in a year, 74 percent of parents of children under five had attended a church-led activity. This represented, the group claimed, a huge “missional opportunity.” This opportunity was created by the closure of Sure Start centers and community libraries in recent years of austerity.

Cates’s home church in Sheffield, Network Church, funds several of these playgroups, which were among the earliest indoor spaces to reopen for children after the first COVID-19 lockdown. It was through this church that Cates was encouraged and supported to join the Conservative Party, first as a candidate for local councilor. It was also at one of its playgroups that I stepped, dazed, into a world of playdough, biscuits, and invitations to Sunday services, with two babies under two in the second year of the pandemic.

Before then, I had already started to suspect the rightward tow of parenthood in austerity Britain. As I scrolled Instagram, prairie dress–wearing evangelicals taught me how to carry a baby in a wrap sling, and in the next post extolled the importance of stay-at-home motherhood. In a tradwife-dominated algorithm, information posts on pregnancy quickly segued into a pro-life propaganda. “This is the size of a fetus at sixteen weeks” became “this is a creature with rights who feels pain.”

In Britain, as in central Europe and on the American evangelical right, the family is offered up as a solution to the problems of social dislocation and declining wages created by capitalism. Gender inequality can be overcome by embracing traditional gender roles. The concentration of wealth among the aging can be addressed through a closer alliance of families across generations. Frustration with Britain’s limited opportunities for young graduates, its disintegrating transport networks, and its unaffordable cities can be overcome by just staying home. In the wake of a pandemic that laid bare the economy’s total reliance on mothers, a politics that acknowledges, celebrates, and compensates the burdens of motherhood will have its allure.

For the Right, babies are important for the social and political phenomena they affect: a tethering of women to the home, and families to their locality and each other that produces the kind of people who wish to vote for and be governed by the Conservative Party. For today’s young left, understandable pessimism about the future of politics and the planet has led many to ask: Why have babies at all? But the contemporary right’s obsession with the very young has never really been motivated by a love for infants. Lest we forget, not far from Europe’s coasts refugee children are left to drown at sea. This drive to create new citizens is about the past. Britain, ruled by an aging, nostalgic elite, seeks babies to keep alive fantasies about the past and deny the reality of the future.