I had become a single mother when my first marriage split up in 1993. In one devastating stroke, I became a hate figure to a certain section of the press, and a bogeyman to the Tory Government. Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State at the DSS, had recently entertained the Conservative Party conference with a spoof Gilbert and Sullivan number, in which he decried “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”. The Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, castigated single-parent families from St Mellons, Cardiff, as “one of the biggest social problems of our day”. (John Redwood has since divorced the mother of his children.) Women like me (for it is a curious fact that lone male parents are generally portrayed as heroes, whereas women left holding the baby are vilified) were, according to popular myth, a prime cause of social breakdown, and in it for all we could get: free money, state-funded accommodation, an easy life.
An easy life. Between 1993 and 1997 I did the job of two parents, qualified and then worked as a secondary school teacher, wrote one and a half novels and did the planning for a further five. For a while, I was clinically depressed. To be told, over and over again, that I was feckless, lazy — even immoral — did not help.
But wait, some will say. Given that you have long since left single parenthood for marriage and a nuclear family; given that you are now so far from a life dependent on benefits that Private Eye habitually refers to you as Rowlinginnit, why do you care? Surely, nowadays, you are a natural Tory voter?
No, I’m afraid not. The 2010 election campaign, more than any other, has underscored the continuing gulf between Tory values and my own. It is not only that the renewed marginalisation of the single, the divorced and the widowed brings back very bad memories. There has also been the revelation, after ten years of prevarication on the subject, that Lord Ashcroft, deputy chairman of the Conservatives, is non-domiciled for tax purposes.
Now, I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.
I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.
A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.
Child poverty remains a shameful problem in this country, but it will never be solved by throwing millions of pounds of tax breaks at couples who have no children at all. David Cameron tells us that the Conservatives have changed, that they are no longer the “nasty party”, that he wants the UK to be “one of the most family-friendly nations in Europe”, but I, for one, am not buying it. He has repackaged a policy that made desperate lives worse when his party was last in power, and is trying to sell it as something new. I’ve never voted Tory before ... and they keep on reminding me why.