Sunday, 11 April 2010

What's so wrong about promoting marriage?

For such a modest and relatively benign policy, the Conservatives' announcement of a transferable tax allowance for married (or civilly partnered) couples has attracted an extraordinary amount of vitriol. On the one hand, the measure is condemned as ineffectual - "derisory" in Vince Cable's words - while on the other it is portrayed as a return to the moral authoritarianism of the 1950s. Anyone would think they had advocated fining divorcees or even (as Gordon Brown did at his party conference last year) confining single mothers to "a network of supervised homes."

Among other absurdities, we had Deborah McIlveen of Women's Aid claiming that the proposal would penalise victims of domestic violence who wished to escape. Kate Bell from Gingerbread characterised it as an attack on single parents, as though the evil Tories wanted to take money away from needy children. Nick Clegg called it "patronising drivel". Ed Balls managed to make both criticisms, in one breath damning it both as "gesture politics" and "deeply unfair." But if it's just a gesture, how can it be deeply unfair?

Yesterday's Times leader column asserted that recognising marriage in the tax system "is not a good idea" on the grounds that "It should be no concern of the State to make judgments on the lives of couples who choose not to marry or people who wish to be solitary." That begs a number of questions, not least whether giving a small advantage to some married couples (the lower-paid will benefit most) disadvantages unmarried ones. If paying £12 a week less in income tax is so important to them, they will have an obvious solution: get married. It's unlikely many will get married solely on that basis, though. In that sense it obviously is gesture politics; but it's a nice gesture - a small token of appreciation rather than the usual one-fingered salute.

But it's the other point I wish to concentrate on here, the alleged "making judgements". The idea that people's personal relationships are or should be a no-go area for the state is strange coming from politicians and columnists who otherwise have supported ever greater and more intrusive state intervention. The very people who think it is the business of government to penalise drinkers and over-eaters, who support "awareness campaigns" and expensive advertising in support of, for example, the highly dubious propositions that pregnant women should avoid so much as a sniff of wine or that eating a government-endorsed quota of fruit and veg wards off cancer, come over all non-interventionist and libertarian when it comes to marriage. They'd rather set fire to an effigy of an overweight child.

People happy to enforce mad schemes to ban traditional lightbulbs on the spurious grounds that this will somehow offset the vast and growing carbon emissions of India and China are alarmed by the suggestion that the government should have an opinion on what is the best environment in which to bring up children, even if all that is on offer is a modest "reward" for the married rather than a penalty for the unwed. It's all very peculiar.

No doubt they would say that "lifestyle" campaigns are not simply for individuals' benefit, because the costs of obesity, alcoholism, smoking-related cancer, death on the road, landfill, carbon emissions, etc etc etc are borne by the state - in other words, paid for out of taxes. Yet this argument ought to apply, a fortiori, to marriage. As the recent report from New Labourish Demos demonstrated to no-one's real surprise, on average and in general children whose parents are and remain married are healthier, do better in school, are less prone to criminality and drug-taking, have better employment histories, are less dependent on welfare benefits and form stronger relationships in their turn. This is not simply good for individuals, it benefits society and in doing so saves the taxpayer money. Huge amounts of cash are annually expended on treating the victims of social breakdown, whether through social services, the NHS, the criminal justice system or out-of-work benefits. Encouraging marriage ought to be a no-brainer for any government, not on moralistic grounds but on the grounds of cold hard cash.

The real criticism of the Tories' policy is not that it unfairly penalises the unmarried (because it doesn't) but that it is too modest really to make a difference. It is gesture politics at its most gestural. Vince Cable was of course right when he said that people wouldn't get married because the government was offering a tax break worth not much more than ten pounds a week. The logic of the previous paragraph is that the government ought to adopt a far more punitive approach towards lifestyles which are costly to the taxpayer. Nor do the arguments that favour marriage as the best environment for raising children apply to gay relationships which do not envisage procreation - though there are, of course, gay households with dependent children and heterosexual households with none.

However, considered in less mathematical terms, what the Conservatives are really proposing to do is to "send a message" about the importance of marriage. The paradox, of course, is that many (perhaps most) of those who display a visceral hatred of anything that smacks, however obscurely, as state support for marriage are themselves married (Mr and Mrs Ed Balls, for example). And as we've seen, they aren't the type normally to oppose intrusive message-sending (or worse) by the state when it comes to matters of lifestyle choice.

Two possibilities. One is that the idea somehow threatens the modern romanticisation of the married state. Now that marriage is neither socially enforced nor economically essential, and premarital cohabitation is the norm, the act of getting married has come to seem more like a grand statement of love than as entry into an institution. The prevalence of divorce strengthens the idea that marriage is mainly about personal convenience and fulfilment and certainly not about promoting the good of society as a whole. How dare the government besmirch the purity of our love by making it - however obscurely - financially advantageous to tie the knot.

I also wonder if some of these left-wing progressives, used to think of themselves as being in the avant-garde of social and political change, aren't rather embarrassed at being reminded just how conventional their own lifestyle choices are.