The Tories have spent the last three years triumphantly wailing “There’s no money left!” at opponents of their slash-and-burn policies. There has always been dosh lying around for their pet projects, of course: more than three billion to privatise the NHS here, money to absorb cutting taxes for millionaires there, or an apparently limitless amount for HS2. And now it turns out they have £700m a year to throw at making state-sanctioned judgements about people’s families and how we choose to express our love for each other.
On one level, the proposed marriage tax allowance – a taxpayer-funded scrap of red meat for frothing-at-the-mouth Tory backbenchers – is an embarrassing joke. Two-thirds of married couples won’t even benefit, and those who do will have an extra £3.84 a week to play with. Given that the going rate of an average wedding these days is £18,000, it would take them just 90 years of marital bliss (or angst) before the allowance covers the big day itself. If a single couple is incentivised to marry by this naked, not-so-cheap attempt to assuage the Tory Taliban, they would make a fascinating and baffling case study. And if this is, indeed, a pre-election bribe, an extra £200 a year hardly compensates for the annual £1,500 that has been emptied from the average Briton’s pockets since Nick Clegg and David Cameron exchanged their own vows.
It is insulting on another level, too. The “bedroom tax” is surely one of the cruelest and most unjust policies inflicted by a British government on its own people since the war: an attempt to force people with almost nothing, to cough up money they don’t have, to drive people into downsized homes that don’t exist, to collectively punish families for the failure of successive governments to build council housing. And yet it allegedly saves around £470m a year, and that’s without taking into account the costly impact of driving families into the more expensive private rented sector. A pathetic gimmick that has every–thing to do with crude internal politicking will cost more than a policy, that has inflicted incalculable misery on hundreds of thousands of families – married or not – will supposedly save.
Now, I’m at that age where friends seem to be bending on one knee to their beloved other halves every other week. I’m about to become best man for the first time, one of the greatest honours of my life. I have a bit of a soft spot for weddings, which may jar with the more radical instincts of some: they are quite a sweet way to express love, herd close friends and relatives in one place and have an almighty piss-up. I’m also uncle to two beautiful children, being raised by parents as loving and devoted as any, who have chosen not to splash out on a marriage ceremony. The idea that a marital certificate would have any impact on their family is self-evidently farcical. It is not for the state to judge that one sort of family is better than another.
This marriage tax allowance is nothing more than the state tutting at those who do not meet its expectations. It is an attempt to bribe people into a narrow view of what constitutes a good family. Widowers and widows, single parents, women escaping abusive marriages in a country where a million face domestic abuse a year, those yet to meet The One – all will now be effectively subsidising the marriages of others. The money will then go straight into the pockets of a man – who will get a pint a week on the state, even if he repeatedly abandons his family for another. It reinforces the model of a family being promoted by the Government’s cuts: a bread-winning father and stay-at-home mother.
It is completely out of sync with the realities of the modern family. One in four children now grow up with a single parent. Nearly half of all children are born to unmarried adults. Married people are now a minority in England and Wales, the proportion having fallen from 51 per cent in 2001 to 47 per cent in 2011. These are the figures that depress those demanding that the state drag people to the altar. But the truth is a statement of the obvious. Marriage can be loving, tender, brimming with companionship. It can also be horrible, full of punching, screaming, and psychological abuse. It is not an innately good or bad thing.
Members of the marriage lobby claim that the institution is better for children. And yet, according to the Children’s Society, a child’s well-being is far more strongly influenced by the level of family conflict than by its structure. In fact, the suggestion that children do better with married parents is mixing up causation and correlation. Marriage is becoming an increasingly middle-class institution. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, “cohabiting parents are typically less educated, younger, and have a lower household income than married parents, and they may also differ in their relationship quality and stability.” We already know that children from more affluent backgrounds do better – they have better housing, a better diet, are exposed to a broader vocabulary from an earlier age, and so on – and their parents are more likely to be married.
Yet, for all their preaching about the traditional family, it is the Tories who have done most to trash it. The 1980s and 1990s saw a dramatic decline in marriages and surging numbers of single parents. Recent research in the US has shown that job insecurity plays a key role in the falling marriage rate. High Thatcherism was a time of rapid de-industrialisation, leaving entire communities bereft of secure work: no wonder marriage rates collapsed.
Labour should be tackling this dogma with genuine pro-family policies. A living wage would help drag working families out of poverty: after all, they currently constitute the majority of Britain’s burgeoning poor. A house-building programme would provide security, tackle overcrowding and combat poverty, promoting the health, education and well-being of children. Creating secure work with an industrial strategy and taking on zero-hour contracts would help give families stability. Decent child care would enable more parents to work. Expanding SureStart and investing in nursery education would help narrow the yawning gap between the affluent and the impoverished child.
It is an indictment of Cameron’s Britain that cuts have left women’s refuges turning away 230 people fleeing domestic violence a day, while the state splashes out on the institution of marriage. The traditional battle cry of the right is that the state should keep out of the affairs of the individual, and yet here they are making state-sanctioned judgements about personal choice. Andy Coulson once warned Cameron that a perception the Prime Minister did not like single parents was “electoral halitosis” – at least one bit of sense from the now-disgraced spin-doctor. This is not a story of commitment, it is a story of divorce – a Tory divorce from reality.