Last year a friend of mine went to a civil partnership ceremony for the first time. She liked it so much that she decided to book one for herself and her partner, with whom she's lived for several years. She rang the town hall, chose the date and everything seemed straightforward until the registrar asked for her partner's name. "You mean your partner's a man?" asked the incredulous official, and gently explained that civil partnerships are available only to same-sex couples.
So my friend, who doesn't want to get married, will continue to appear in the statistics for cohabiting couples – the bête noire of newspapers such as the Daily Mail, which fulminated last week about the Labour government supposedly destroying the institution of marriage. Last week's official figures appeared, at first glance, to provide evidence for this proposition, revealing that fewer people got married in 2006 than in any year since 1895. In those days, the population of England and Wales was half its current level, so the decline in the popularity of marriage is even more dramatic than the round numbers suggest. It peaked at 426,241 weddings in 1972 and went down to 236,980 in 2006, contributing (again, according to the Daily Mail) to family breakdown, an explosion in the number of single mothers and the kind of social disorder that leads to law-abiding citizens dying at the hands of feral youths.
I don't deny that there is a problem of absent fathers and poor parenting, or that it's particularly acute in areas of social deprivation. But I belong to a generation that was never very keen on marriage, and many of my friends have brought up children in stable family units without feeling the need to involve priests or registrars. I've been to a couple of weddings in the past decade, one a Shia Muslim ceremony in the grounds of a palace in Beirut, and the other conducted by a Reform rabbi in a deconsecrated church in London, but they are easily outnumbered by gay friends embarking on civil partnerships. I think that the only people I know who are keen on getting hitched are gay.
Indeed, when you consider the striking popularity of this new way of regulating relationships, it's obvious that the Government has missed a trick. The problem with marriage, for many people, is that it's in essence an 18th-century institution, poorly adapted to modern life. At that time, the state did a deal with the church, regularising all the different forms of marriage in a single type of union which was very difficult to get out of, especially if you were a woman. Women couldn't divorce abusive husbands and risked losing everything, including their children, if they ran away from a violent man.
With such a history, it's not surprising that church weddings are unpopular; two-thirds of marriages involve civil ceremonies, with fewer than 80,000 religious weddings each year. But the attraction of civil partnerships is that they are an entirely modern invention, as well as being one of the most successful legacies of Tony Blair's premiership. They allow two people to throw a party, make a public commitment to each other and sign a contract which makes their rights and responsibilities clear. It's practical, as romantic as you want to make it, and horribly unfair that heterosexuals can't join in too.