Should the Government promote marriage?

Last week Labour women forced Tony Blair to water down his views on the importance of family values and traditional marriage
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Beatrix Campbell debates the issue with Patricia Morgan

Beatrix Campbell debates the issue with Patricia Morgan


Beatrix Campbell The Government may think we all know what it means by traditional family values. But do we? Is it the extended kinship of Bradford Muslims? Or is it the Viz version, with dads in string vests and mums doing Sunday dinners? It probably doesn't mean the dedicated domesticity of same-sex parents who, according to research, yield exemplary children. There is no evidence that in general children are beset by bad parents. Quite the contrary - mothers and fathers are perhaps more connected and caring than ever before.

Patricia Morgan Children born or adopted and raised in an intact marriage are more apt to avoid criminal and psychiatric trouble, achieve more educationally and become gainfully employed. In turn, they are likely to get and stay married and raise the next generation compared to those reared by single or cohabiting parents, relatives, step-parents, foster parents or in institutions. Family fragmentation exerts a downward pressure on the abilities of families to transmit resources, values and opportunities to their children. Non-marriage and unwed child- bearing involves the transmission of low human capital and increases dependence on public institutions.

BC This is a debate that is not about domesticity but discipline. It was Tony Blair and Jack Straw who invoked parenting as the key word in the regressive social authoritarianism that became the founding marque of New Labour. These men traduced parenting as the policing of children. Insofar as New Labour has a child-care agenda it is to control the children of its nightmares, those feral offspring of the rough and unrespectable.

PM A child sired outside marriage is less likely to receive care and support even compared to when a marriage breaks up. While some married men may neglect their paternal obligations, men do not make as dependable fathers outside marriage. Cohabitations with children break up at five-fold the rate of marriages. Marriage is an institution in which the pursuit of individual objectives is replaced by joint goals. It is tied up with establishing and furnishing a home, which encourages the acquisition of assets and maintenance of property.

BC This is not only about the reform of relations between men, women and children but also the reform of the state's regulation of childhood, sex, property, time and money. But what research among parents has revealed is that their priorities are about pressure on parents (too much of it), child care (too little of it) and safety in the streets and public places. The mania for marriage is more than a social conservatism sponsored by fear of crime. It is a reaction against a phenomenon that threatens politicians' security and status as men, all those unruly mothers who risk relative poverty rather than put up with a partner who won't co-operate or take care of anyone but himself.

PM Marriage provides someone to monitor a person's well-being and encourage self- regulation. Attachment and obligations to others inhibit risky behaviours. Cohabitation offers none of this, and neither, compared to marriage is it a safe environment. Rates of domestic violence and conflict are much higher for cohabitees and lone parents.

BC What British parents don't want is state interference in morals or sexual manners. There is no popular swell for what these politicians call traditional family life. Civil society shows a talent for improvising novel ways of organising partnership and parenting that have no echo in our public institutions. There are new forms of mutuality in relationships that can't be contained in the notion of the traditional family.

PM But there is something like 80 to 90 per cent public support for marriage as a life goal. Like private property, marriage has to be publicly supported by law and culture to exist. When its rights and responsibilities dissolve, it disappears. The Government would prefer to go for the cheaper and politically correct option of helping people relate to each other through counselling. Now that would be intrusive and would foster aggravation, not successful marriage.


Beatrix Campbell is a feminist writer and journalist. Patricia Morgan is the author of 'Marriage-Lite, the rise of cohabitation and its consequences'.