A government divorced from reality

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The sound of a herd of moralisers bellowing family values through the Palace of Westminster continues, day after day. When it reached a climax during the debate on the new divorce law the Government promised to Do Something. Last week, finally, it Did. But after all that hurrumphing and trumpeting, it was a pathetic Something, because in the end, locking people into marriage is not something governments can do.

The Lord Chancellor announced a "major programme to support projects aimed at preventing marriage breakdown". What will it do? "Marriage organisations are being invited to bid for extra funds with ideas for reducing the incidence and cost of marriage breakdown." How much money is in this fund? Something above pounds 250,000 but under pounds 500,000. The marriage-saving quid pro quo for easier divorce turns out to be very few quid indeed. For all the moral sound and fury, the Treasury remained unconvinced that any more money would be well-spent.

Now that 40 per cent of marriages come to an untimely end, a tidal wave of moral panic is engulfing us. But the amount of money the Canute-like Government has just come up with is worth about one sandbag.

Government figures show that divorce costs the Exchequer pounds 4bn a year, mainly in social security and legal aid. The poor are some four times more likely to divorce than rich couples, and it is their divorces that cost the taxpayer.

Since 1948 the government has partly funded marriage guidance, but waiting lists for counselling often stretch to six or eight weeks. The London Marriage Guidance Council is desperately over-stretched, counselling 5,500 couples a year but with a "horrendous" waiting list of 900 couples and a deficit of pounds 150,000.

Bizarrely, the Lord Chancellor said that public lack of knowledge about the service was a problem, and called for schemes to publicise it. Some Relate regions are keen to set up drop-in centres - but that would cost serious money.

There is a great shortage of counsellors, who are highly trained but unpaid volunteers. To recruit many more, they would need to be paid, but by whom? Clients pay according to their means: each session costs pounds 40 but more than half the clients pay far less.

The Lord Chancellor is looking for "innovative schemes", but plainly he wants them cheap, a lot cheaper than counselling. One government idea is an "interactive, multimedia" approach. Would you go into a booth and answer questions about your marriage on a computer screen? Telephone help- lines are another proposal, but people would still need to come in for counselling.

The Government is keen on what it calls a "catchy, interesting, relevant video". Darn good fun, telling people in a relevant way about the problems that might arise in marriage. It would be given out free at churches and register offices to people getting married.

This idea comes from Gary Streeter, the minister responsible for the Marriage Task Force - who, incidentally, gained his promotion through a reshuffle following the distinctly non-family values activities of Rod Richards, the married MP caught in flagrante and obliged to resign. God works in mysterious ways.

Gary Streeter was converted to Christianity in 1979 at a Charismatic house church. He calls for the church to lead a moral revival. Entering marriage, he says, "should be like William the Conqueror burning his boats [sic] - an irrevocable life commitment".

Talking of his own marriage, the secret, he says, is "recognising the difference between women and men. Men tend to be more logical, women more instinctive. If couples recognise that they don't speak the same language then they can understand each other. A man will say 'Why do you think that?' A woman will say 'I don't know why, I just do'. Communication is the key".

Divorce, he says, is a symptom of "our quick-fix culture, the selfishness of modern society and the absence of a framework of love and discipline. It's plain as a pikestaff that in the early years it is mothers who have a special relationship with their children. It is foolish to try to politically correct that away. But of course a father is crucial, especially for boys who need the presence of a male to develop their personalities. That's the balance of family life." The wisdom of the taxi driver seems to be where the Government draws its philosophy of life.

By coincidence, the very day the Lord Chancellor announced his new marriage initiative, a brilliant new production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened at the Aldwych Theatre in London (left), starring Diana Rigg and David Suchet. It is a raw and bloody slice out of the black heart of marriage. Martha and George, locked together in rage, are on a downward spiral of mutual destruction, drinking themselves into a delirium of marital recrimination and despair. As a portrait of what marriage can become, its truth still shocks.

What would our policy-makers say about George and Martha? I suppose they would hold them up as a model, heroic couple enduring the unendurable. Maybe if George and Martha had seen the proposed "catchy, interesting, relevant" marriage video 20 years ago, things would have worked out OK. Maybe that interactive multimedia computer would fix their problem? We could write a new final scene at the end where the marriage guidance counsellor comes down in a cloud, a Dea ex machina.

But what would a good counsellor do? She would step in and prise them apart, telling them that it was time to separate. Just as there is the good marriage, so there is the good divorce. Marriage counsellors have always stressed that their business is not about putting sticking plasters over gangrenous marriages. It is about helping couples to do the right thing and sometimes the right thing is separation. Divorce is not necessarily a disaster. Usually it is a necessity.

People's private lives are not the proper business of politicians and they make asses of themselves when they talk about it. The social problem for politicians is how to reduce the huge cost of divorce to the taxpayer. The Child Support Agency is one solution - if the Government ever dares to track down the resisting fathers and make them pay. Other solutions are equal pay and childcare to ensure women can become breadwinners for their families. That, however, lacks the electioneering pizzazz of a good family-values rant.