Labour is right to abandon its plans to meddle in family life

Last week Jack Straw asserted that we should not `get into a paddy' about the decline of marriage
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The Independent Culture
SO SOPHIE and Edward did not offer one another even the most perfunctory peck after the vows were exchanged. The omission, we were told by those who claim a window into the souls of royals on such occasions, was based on a reluctance to furnish the media archives with such a memorable picture, lest the marriage should hit rocky times ahead.

Amid the confident smiles and the prince's melting reassurance that "love is the most important thing", the calculation of what would happen if the match came unstuck seems hard-headed, although not exceptionally pessimistic when almost one in two marriages here now ends in divorce.

The modern wedding, whether celebrated in St George's Chapel, Windsor, or the the local register office, arouses two contradictory instincts. The first is to wish the couple who emerge blinking on to the outside steps, happiness. The second is to wonder if they will still be together in two, five, or 10 years' time.

Divorce traumatises and impoverishes all but lawyers. This undeniable insight was the foundation of the Conservatives' 1996 Family Law Act, supported by Labour, which set out to tackle the spiral of resentment and cost caused by the involvement of the legal system in marital break- ups. Last week, the proposals to replace a system relying on lawyers with mediation and counselling, were shelved after trials showed that only 7 per cent of those separating were prepared to attend mediation and that 13 per cent would consider counselling; 40 per cent of people emerging from these processes were bent on consulting Sue, Grabbit and Runne anyway.

The problem with this Bill, as the late Princess of Wales might have put it, is that it ensured there would be three partners in any troubled marriage - usually man, woman and the state. You could have no-fault divorce quickly, but if and only if you agreed to discuss your break- up with someone else. This was a monstrous intrusion and even those couples who could no longer agree on what day of the week it was, shared the view that it added insult to injury.

We can only be grateful to the Lord Chancellor for having the sense to put the whole thing out of its misery, rather than mount some spurious defence about the regulations needing time to become established.

The intriguing question is why it was passed in the first place and why Labour supported and tried to enact it. For modern governments, marriage is a mined territory which they cross on tiptoe, waiting for the next detonation. The last government fell hostage to the family fundamentalists who complained so vociferously about the "no fault" component of the new regulations that they inserted enforced counselling/mediation as a delaying tactic, instead of granting people what they want most at such a stage: their decree nisi.

The Government is even more confused about marriage and the family, stranded between an appreciation of the common sense of many traditional arrangements and the desire to deliver a more flexible, less constraining society. It wants to produce a less fractured Britain than the one it inherited and it has to think of ways to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It sees the figures which show that people who stay married are more economically stable than those who don't, and it is re-learning the importance of fathers, particularly in the upbringing of boys. But how far should tradition dominate?

A mere six months ago, the Government issued a Green Paper on the family which stated that the married, "nuclear family" was "on balance" the best option for rearing children. Sometime between then and now the direction of policy was reversed. Last week the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who last year was gravely heading a Cabinet committee on family matters, boldly separated New Labour from the rhetoric of Old Marriage by risking the assertion that we should not "get into a paddy" about the decline of marriage, that it was no longer the institutions of family life that mattered, so much as the quality of relationships.

The consequences of this are only starting to sink in. William Hague is ditching a lot of the early Opposition commitments to be non-judgmental about lifestyles and is seeking to restore the Conservatives as the party of "stay-married-or-else". I will take bets that before the next election he will pledge tax rebates for married couples with children and mothers who stay at home.

So much for the promise that the new Tory party would break the mould by being economically dry, but socially liberal. That would have been a rather exciting and attractive combination. When it comes to marriage and the family however, the Conservative tribe can rarely resist going for a bout of cheap applause.

The idea that the state can and should intervene to prolong marriages makes me nervous. Family fundamentalists are insatiable. First they demanded that the Government endorse their view that marriage is inherently superior to other models of family life. Having wrung that out of Tony Blair, they moaned that the mere endorsement of wedlock is not enough. Their real aims have always been to provide financial rewards for marriage and to make divorce harder.

My objections are ideological and practical. It is people, not the state, who make marriages work, and so people should be free to end those marriages. The married person'stax allowance, which family campaigners want to increase, is an absurdly untargeted benefit, which should be directed to the welfare of children rather than reward adults simply for the fact of marrying.

Attempts to bolster the family by offering carrots are doomed to fail. If we give people money to marry, they will do so. But that is no guarantee that they will behave well afterwards. In the early 1980s, Chancellor Kohl was persuaded by a strong church lobby that the way to boost the sagging German nuptial rate was through tax rebates. The result is a generation of people living in pro forma "tax marriages", while pursuing their heart's desires elsewhere. The Germans have simply found a way to institutionalise marital farce. There is no reason to think that the British would behave differently.

Beware those who tell you that making a priority of wedlock is the single righteous answer to the complex problems of a society coming to terms with sweeping secularisation and rapid change in the home and workplace. We have sacrificed the stability of the lives they want us to lead, to the pursuit of happiness we choose ourselves. We refuse to live in the marital misery endured by many of our grandparents. We would rather be free to lead messy lives than be harnessed to an imposed, cloying security.

These may not always be the wisest of trade-offs, but that is for free people in a free society to decide and not for governments to dictate. The word I miss most in the vocabulary of the family fundamentalists is choice.