SPEAKING to the Global Care Gathering in Dreghorn this week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon referred to herself as the “chief corporate parent” – or, as she prefers it, “chief mammy” – of Scotland. While these comments were doubtless spoken to endear, and should be read primarily in context, they nonetheless highlight a problem in our Government’s attempts to support Scotland’s families.

Although the Scottish Government rarely talks about itself as a “corporate parent”, this is increasingly how it acts towards the people of Scotland. To be a parent (of the perma-tired, non-corporate sort) in today’s Scotland means accepting governmental regulation of your own family life in a way quite unknown to previous generations. Think, for example, of recent Government-approved efforts to stand between parents and their young children on the issue of gender self-identification; the Government’s increasing regulation of parental discipline; the unpopular drive to test early primary schoolers against their parents’ wishes; or the widely disliked Named Person scheme. In each of these, a paternalistic state projects its own programme and worldview into homes up and down the land, treating its own preferences and idiosyncrasies –however arbitrary and flimsy – as normative for us all. In the process, this “corporate parent” undermines each real-world family’s authority in regulating its own affairs according to its own norms and values.

If the Scottish Government wants to support parents, it should stop talking about itself – and crucially, acting – as a parliamentary parent to the nation. To speak of any state, politician, or party as a “corporate parent” is to make a basic category mistake. The family unit and the democratic state are quite different things. By confusing them, our Government imperils both.

In many ways, the family (rightly) is a profoundly undemocratic institution. We do not choose our parents. Rather, they are chosen for us in the accident of birth, or in the process of adoption. For good or ill, our link to our parents is lifelong and indelible. And despite the fact that we have not chosen them, our parents (rightly) have life-defining responsibilities over us. They are tasked with teaching us to love, moulding our characters, and giving us a view of the world. In taking up this herculean challenge, every parent carries out a common responsibility in a unique way. For that reason, the family next door will never be quite like your own, because every family unit is (rightly) a one-off melting pot of histories – cultural, personal, and genetic – and hopes for the future. A family can run along lines that are compelling and unassailable to its own members, but that make little sense to their neighbours. And that is no bad thing, because the family, so undemocratic for its youngest members, is one of the most basic building blocks in a healthy democracy.

The state (rightly) is very different to the family. It should be a thoroughly democratic institution. In a liberal democracy, we choose our politicians because they promise to represent us, in all our grassroots diversity. We elect them to do so – hopefully – because we already know who we are, not because we want them to decide who we must become. And should they fail to represent us well, our democracy also means we can vote them out. They are in office to represent their constituents as public servants, not corporate mothers or fathers.

In its paternalism, our Government often talks about love as its motivation, or as the thing it will promote in Scotland. This is quite a responsibility to assume. As an example of this, the First Minister’s speech highlighted her commitment to “seeing love be the foundation and underpinning in what is wrapped around every child in Scotland”. While this is a noble aim, it is not something a “corporate parent”, armed merely with statutes and political might, could ever achieve. Love is much better felt than telt. It cannot be created or kept alive by legislative action. Love’s very nature makes plain that while politics is important in the promotion of human flourishing, its power is not infinite.

If our politicians want to support Scottish parents and children, and promote love as a normal childhood experience, they must remember their limits. They are public servants and elected representatives of those whose social institutions – in this case, the family – have a power wholly different to their own. It is hard to promote love and encourage parents if those parents feel that their state assumes they do not know how to parent, and where the uninvited “corporate parent” becomes an increasingly demanding figure in the home.

As a child, I learned two civic virtues – one regarding the family, and the other, politics –which were ingrained at school and in the home. On the family, I was taught that ye cannae shove yer granny aff a bus for one simple reason: ’cause she’s yer mammy’s mammy. And on politics, I was taught to vote according to my own conscience at every available opportunity, because enfranchisement empowers the people. If those lessons were correct, a “corporate parent” is not just unnecessary. It is also an impossibility.

Dr James Eglinton is Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh