A fine thing, the family: but there's no need to force it on us

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The Independent Online
ON THE great balance sheet of human misery and happiness, the traditional family is easily in credit. It is the most effective way of pooling material and emotional resources, provides cheap and flexible social security and a sense of rootedness in an uncertain world.

I am the product of a conventional family and willingly endorse the model. But there is a family fundamentalism on the march which is less agreeable. The marriage crusades are about to begin, and I for one want to get out of the way of the chargers.

It is the grim-faced zealotry about the family evangelists - whether of the Christian Socialist or moral Conservative variety - which is so off-putting. Inclining to dogmatism, they fail to see that there is no quicker way to take the enjoyment out of something than to insist that it is good for us. Rather than being an exciting and hopeful prospect, marriage begins to sound more like a threat than a promise.

Like vacuum-cleaner salesmen, people who want to sell you the Family with a capital F make exaggerated claims on behalf of their essentially admirable product. It alone, in their eyes, can rebuild society from the shards of social disintegration. Positive inducements to marriage through the tax and benefits system will clean up those messy consequences of the permissive society in no time.

They maintain that the system does not give due preference to marriage. But of course it does: in the form of a tax allowance. "It's too small and it's been decreasing in real terms since Attlee!" they cry. The only mystery to me is that this ludicrously untargeted rebate has survived at all. What possible justification can there be in these fiscally stringent times for the state to give pounds 1,830 of tax relief back to my husband and me? The only damage we would cause if we ended our marriage would be to ourselves and to our cat.

Once there are children, the family lobby has always had a stronger case. If it could be demonstrated that changes to tax and benefit would solder fractured families back together again, or stop them fracturing in the first place, there would be persuasive grounds for instigating them. Any such evidence is in short supply.

Yet politicians rush to endorse what I suppose they will soon start calling the New Traditionalism unimpeded by any rigorous assessment of whether its prescriptions have ever worked, anywhere. So Tony Blair has pledged to "strengthen families" and William Hague has just promised to give us more of the unending supply of virtual money that oppositions are so keen to spend (until they become governments) on rebates for married couples with children.

Jack Straw now heads a cabinet committee on family matters and, in the vain hope of making this sound trendy, is calling himself a New Behaviourist. In fact there is nothing in the slightest new about it. It simply restates the belief that the state should provide incentives to people to change their conduct.

This would be fine if we were able to predict how people respond to the pulling of fiscal levers. But human beings are infinitely perverse and they rarely conform to the plans of those who seek to redirect their wayward fellow men and women.

Family fundamentalists believe that if the state were to give further privileges to the state of marriage, more people would do it and more stable families would result. This is the logic of an engineer of human souls. It is true that marriages last on average longer than cohabitations. But it does not follow that if we were to induce people to marry rather then live together the resulting relationships would be durable.

The main reason that marriages are more stable than cohabitations at present is that people who take the step actively want to do so. They see marriage as a celebration of love and a public sign of their commitment - not as a tax-reduction scheme.

Of all countries in Western Europe, Britain makes least distinction between married and unmarried earners in terms of taxation - a potent symbol of malign neglect of the family by policy-makers, say the campaigners. But the experience of countries of comparable social and cultural structure is that providing financial rewards for marriage often increases the number of weddings, but does not change the behaviour of the wed.

In the Germany of the 1960s and 1970s, marriage was deeply unpopular with the young. Chancellor Kohl's first government in the 1980s increased tax breaks for marriage. The wedlock figures duly rose. So, I recall, did the frequency of the chat-up line, "I'm married - but don't let that put you off: it's only for the taxman". There has been no revival of the traditional German family as a result of the policy. On the contrary, it has deepened cynicism, since so many people are technically "married" without really meaning it. The attempt to encourage a return to marriage ended up devaluing it.

What we might call the Nuptial Fallacy is set out in its purest form in Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle's New Labour blueprint, The Blair Revolution. The authors commended to us a one-off pounds 6,000 payment to encourage marriage. Being generous sorts, they didn't say that we should pay it back if, after spending it on a new kitchen, we discovered that we could not bear to share it. Again, I have German experience of this from the other side of the Berlin Wall where the Communists used to offer a generous "marriage loan". The more children you produced, the less you paid back. Result: thousands of hasty young marriages and quick-fire childbearing followed by a vast rise in the numbers of single mothers when the relationships collapsed.

The real ayatollahs of family fundamentalism would agree that Mr Mandelson and Mr Liddle were myopic. They would like the state to reward us not for marrying, but only for staying married. After five, ten, fifteen years, we would qualify for various "long-suffering rebates". But, again, we have a discouraging control experiment in the form of the Child Support Agency. One social policy aim of the CSA was that the financial pressure on fathers would make them less inclined to leave their families in the first place. That hasn't happened - people would rather be impoverished by the break-up of an unhappy relationship than live together miserably and be better off. Similarly, women would rather struggle to bring up children by themselves than remain with a violent partner.

Some campaigners are still smarting from the recent liberalisation of divorce. At this point I lose all patience. By what right can we force people to stay together who very much want to be apart? The interventionists believe that marriage is a contract not only between two people but with society, and that our friends, families and colleagues have a duty to try to uphold our marriages. I don't know about you, but I want society to get the hell out of my marriage. It's crowded enough with two people in there.

It's odd that many of the voices which call most insistently for this shift belong to the same people who shriek "nanny state" when governments make other interventions in our lives by banning beef or providing sex education in schools.

In a free society we must be free to make our own mistakes. We cannot achieve moral rearmament through the agency of the Inland Revenue and the DSS. People are not so easily manipulated and neither should they be. Perhaps they would rather create families for love than money.