Leading Article: A simple rule for politicians - keep out of private lives

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM HAGUE is a puzzling phenomenon: impressively fluent; obviously bright; nearly brilliant; never quite right. What on earth, for example, possessed him to walk into precisely the same logical trap into which Tony Blair had fallen only a few months before? When the Government published its Green Paper on the family last year, the Prime Minister tied himself in knots on the issue of marriage. The document described marriage as the "best" way to bring up children, while insisting that being unmarried was not worse. Mr Blair, trying to explain this contradiction, said this did not mean "penalising people who choose not to, it means supporting those who choose to marry". So, marriage is best - apart from any other arrangement - and the Government will not "penalise" people who choose to live together, just refuse to help them. No wonder he is now quiet on the subject.

And yet, despite this object lesson in failing to reconcile the irreconcilable, Mr Hague gave an interview and made a speech yesterday in which he failed to do exactly the same. Marriage should be encouraged by the tax and benefit system because it is the ideal, he said. Not that he was judging people "who find fulfilment in many other sorts of relationships". Despite Sir Norman Fowler's praise for his masterful talents (see page 4), Mr Hague managed to go even further and deeper into the trap than Mr Blair. The Conservative leader suggested that marriage was the answer to a whole range of social ills - indeed, that it might be an engine of prosperity. "Our society has found something which lowers the crime rate, increases people's chances of finding work, improves their education, and contributes to their happiness and well-being," he said.

This is a fallacy of cause and effect, and shows only that to focus on an official ceremony is to miss all the important factors that make a difference between strong families and weak ones, social cohesion and social breakdown, prosperity and deprivation.

This was the message of Blair Mark One, who declared that if a lone parent had deliberately chosen to have children without forming a stable relationship: "I disagree with what they have done." That caused a fuss at the time, impressing Tory Middle England and offending traditional liberals. But it was much more defensible than the contortions of Blair Mark Two: what mattered to the Early Blair was the "stable relationship", not marriage.

That is the point: what matters is stability, responsibility and the welfare of children. Which is, in fact, what most of the Government's White Paper was about: quite rightly, state interference in the family should be to support children, not to support marriage. When the reactionaries to whom Mr Hague's "listening party" has bent its ear bemoan the number of children "born out of wedlock", they do not pause to ask about the qualities of the relationships into which such children are born. Nor do they ask whether a financial incentive to marriage would improve the quality of these relationships.

Sadly, Mr Hague was not asked the questions that would have teased out the illogicality of his position. If marriage in itself promotes stable relationships, is he in favour of gay marriages - especially given that one of the arguments that are favoured by Tories against giving equal rights to homosexuals is that gay men tend to be promiscuous and predatory?

The fact is that politicians should stay out of people's personal lives. Mr Blair should have stuck with Blair Mark One, and Mr Hague should have kept to his excellent theme of the week - that there is a limit to the number of things that politicians should poke their noses into. The issue of marriage, like Glenn Hoddle's religious beliefs, is beyond that limit.