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You can't take the romance out of marriage

LAST WEEK Mary Macleod, head of the Government's brand-new Family and Parenting Institute, said that it was time to take the romance out of marriage. She said, "Marriage is an enterprise. It is like a partnership or a business. There are so many myths about marriage. One is that marriage is about romantic passion." And at the launch of the institute Jack Straw agreed that there was no point being idealistic about marriage. He suggested that not only is it looking pretty creaky now; it had never really existed in the way that traditionalists would have us believe. "If you read late- 18th and 19th-century documents, or take the easy way out and watch costume drama on the telly, you know that even in that romanticised setting, family life was hardly an idyll."

Does this sort of talk show us that marriage is really on the way out? Certainly the commentators of the right were hilariously unsuccessful in marshalling any convincing reaction to the new line on marriage being set by the Government. In the Daily Mail experts were wheeled on to shoot down Jack Straw's views - one of whom, Professor David Marsland, stated marriage was all-important because it has "led to Protestantism, enlightenment and democracy. It was the fertile ground from which sprang the British Empire and its liberating impact on humanity; the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution; the birth and spread of industrial capitalism."

But while speakers on the left are arguing that marriage should be seen as a business, and speakers on the right insist that capitalism depends on strong marriages, British people go on seeing marriage in their own diverse ways. And what seems to dominate, still, is the most romantic and idealistic view of marriage. When we hear Mary Macleod speak, are we likely to agree that what we really want out of marriage is a business- like enterprise, a cool-headed agreement for running two lives in parallel? When we read David Marsland, are we likely to think, wow, if we get married we can help to underpin industrial capitalism? Or do we still want the old dream, the moonlit, rose-scented dream of romance that lasts for ever?

When you look around popular culture, you see that people still seem to be driven as much as ever to chase the old dreams. The obsession with celebrities' private lives that stuffs newspapers and magazines is overwhelmingly about dissecting and wondering over their marriages. They can be bad or good at their jobs, they can lie and be rude to the press, but when they seem to have found a perfect marriage, they achieve a radiant status.

Tony Blair's current impregnability to any political criticism is based on the fact that his marriage has moved centre-stage. With Cherie's unexpected pregnancy his marriage is perceived to be a living romance. Few observers seem to be able to resist the resonance that such a relationship produces; now wherever Cherie Booth goes, from the Royal Opera House to the University of Westminster, she is applauded.

The aura that surrounds Victoria "Posh Spice" and David Beckham is also overwhelmingly based on their marriage. In the hunger to know about the details of their happy home, no detail is too mundane. In the very first instalment of OK! TV last Friday - the television show that aims to draw in the celebrity-loving masses just as the magazine of the same name does - Victoria dominated the programme with her revelations about their domestic life. For instance, she may wear odd socks, but David never does. "His socks are always folded like this," she said, putting her manicured hands together. "He virtually irons his socks."

Indeed, Britain now seems to be obsessed with marriage to a degree that would have seemed unthinkable in the heady days of the Seventies, when celebrities were more likely to boast of hotel-room orgies than about folded, virtually ironed socks. But that doesn't necessarily mean we've rushed backwards to embrace ancient traditions. The marriages that inflame people's interest now are very different from the traditional construct of the marriage, that unequal partnership with the aproned wife in the kitchen and the besuited husband coming home to put money in her purse.

The delightful thing about the Beckhams' marriage is that it is slushily romantic and intensely domestic, yet so many of the details Victoria reveals are resolutely untraditional. She earns more than he does and cares nothing for football; their marriage does not rely on her getting tea on to the table while listening to his tales of a hard day at work. "People said that when I got married I'd spend all my time in the kitchen," she said sceptically to the press. "But I don't even know how to turn the washing- machine on. David does all of that."

Whoever is ironing David's socks, it certainly isn't Victoria. Some elements of the press may find that hard to bear; sports journalists keep on carping about this marriage and the bad effect that it will have on David's job. But the fact that he has fallen so exclusively in love with her has only enhanced his standing among his legions of teenage fans, who dream about the man who will devote himself to their happiness rather than the footballing icons of old, the hard-drinking, violent figures of George Best and Paul Gascoigne.

No, a romantic view of marriage doesn't have to be a traditional one. Many marriages don't even involve a wedding - the couples chosen by Hello! magazine this week as those who are "redefining modern romance" include Richard Gere and Carey Lowell, "parents-in-waiting" who have never bothered with the contract, and Emma Thompson and Greg Wise, likewise. Relationships that look like perfect marriages may not be marriages in the traditional sense; they may include same-sex couples, and families that have expanded to take in the children of previous marriages.

Just because marriage looks so different now doesn't mean that it isn't, still, fuelled by grand passion. Maybe divorcing parents need to be admonished to take more thought for their children or to be more careful about their pension arrangements, but that doesn't mean that marriage itself has to take on the flavour of a commercial transaction. People may want all sorts of different marriages, but most people still seem to want them to be vivid and passionate and slightly crazy.

Perhaps marriage, far from being a business partnership, has turned out to be the one place where people can resist the market-driven principles that underpin the rest of their lives. It is the place where they can have fun with each other and their own children without needing to fulfil any managerial quotas or time-and-motion studies.

Indeed, the reason why many people thrill to Tony and Cherie's newly revealed lust for one another is that it seems so chaotic, so unbusinesslike in contrast to their controlled, deliberate public personas. So Cherie got pregnant by mistake! Because they were thinking much more of their desire for each other's bodies than about the state of the economy or the next law case or the terribly important meeting that Tony had the next day. Our knowledge of that thoughtless moment surrounds them with a heady aura of fun, and fun is the most potent antidote to business and stability.

As the late Christopher Lasch put it, marriage can be a haven in a heartless world. Although more people now rightly decide to get out as soon as the haven begins to turn into a prison, there don't seem to be any signs that people are giving up on searching for that haven. On the contrary, while the experts blather about business-like home arrangements, the idealistic, irrational dreams that fuel marriage go on.