David Cameron's super-disciplined Conservatives are threatening each other with divorce – over marriage. No sooner had one shadow minister suggested that the party would support new rules equalising the rights of married and cohabiting couples, than another popped up to reiterate the party's support for marriage and its intention to place a value on that support through the tax system. And the dispute that broke the surface was but a ripple beside the wars being fought around kitchen tables, in the blogosphere and on the airwaves.
In part the conflict is generational and belongs with other "modernity suits" the Tories have to face: the private lives of women candidates, all-female shortlists and, as of this week, global warming. But I don't think it's just a matter of generation, or not in the simple way that the Sixties can be seen as a watershed between social conservatism and liberalism.
I married relatively young and remain married, but when someone chooses another way, I am not messianic about my own. Yet I'm amazed, whenever the marriage question is posed in the political arena, at the virulence, the stridency, the absolutism of those taking essentially the anti-marriage view. And it is not primarily men – who might be accused of flunking commitment – advocating this view; it is women. What is more, they are not for the most part young women facing the marriage decision for the first time, but women of a certain age – my age.
So what is it they feel so strongly about? Did they perhaps decide, for themselves, not to marry, and want to justify that? Are they women for whom marriage went wrong? Or women resentful of the fact that the prospect never came their way? There may be some of this. In general, though, I suspect they are women who regarded their mothers, aunts or sisters as unfulfilled, or even "enslaved" by their place in a 1950s-style marriage. They see a tax bonus, however small, as a bribe to push women back to the three Ks: Kinder, Kirche, Küche. And, by the way, no one, least of all the Government, is going to make them "conform".
Which might all show an admirable spirit of independence, if it had not become in many circles the new norm from which marriage is seen as an inexplicable deviation. And while the choice of marriage must be personal, the state – in effect, the government of the day – is surely entitled to a view where the family and the state intersect.
A single woman who chooses to have a child alone, or a couple who reject marriage, may follow their own lights. But if the woman can't support her child without state help and if cohabiting couples split – as they do more often than married ones – and the state faces a bill, then why should the Government not create conditions that could reduce the financial and social cost to everyone else? I simply can't see what is so wrong with that.
Stop being so patronising, and hail a national asset
I imagine that Baroness Who?, as the poor lady was instantly dubbed, is a resilient soul, in the best tradition of feisty British womanhood. But the condescension ladled out to Lady Ashton by her compatriots is going beyond a joke. Yesterday, a full two weeks after her appointment, the Business Secretary vouchsafed that he had wanted the job. And this, after all sorts of muttering – not from Brussels, but from here – that she had only been the British Government's fourth-choice nominee.
Well, tough, Lord Mandelson. In deciding to return to domestic politics, you left a vacancy in Brussels that Lady Ashton was parachuted in to fill. And you know what? In those months, she was judged to have done an excellent job, which is why 27 heads of government approved her nomination so smoothly. And this week, even as you were sobbing from the sidelines and our compatriots were lamenting that on the whole panoply of Euro-appointments Gordon Brown had supposedly been outmanoeuvred by the French, Lady Ashcroft was appearing before the MEPs in preparation for her confirmation hearing as the EU's new top diplomat.
She was rated modest, sensible, quick-witted and well-informed. Why don't we acknowledge a national asset abroad on the rare occasions we have one?
TV – our closed window on Europe
A few weeks ago a general warning went out that, for the sake of extending the national reach of Channel Five, some TV settings were being changed and some older digital boxes for receiving Freeview would cease to work. In the fast-moving world of communications technology our digital box undoubtedly qualifies as an antique. So I arrived home in trepidation, expecting to find a thunderous husband and a blank screen.
But no, there he was, contentedly watching something riveting like BBC Parliament. The following evening, though, he was watching football in the bedroom and complaining that, while the main television, with the digital box, was working fine, it had "lost" Channel Five. Time passed, and we plucked up courage to find "menu" and press "update channels". Instead of expiring, our ancient box not only sorted the existing channels back into a logical order, but restored Channel Five and provided some new stations, including CNN and the Kremlin-friendly English-language channel Russia Today.
Which reminded me all over again that when we had our first satellite dish installed, many years ago, we were able to receive – free – a selection of Continental channels. Now, unless you have an all-singing, all-dancing moveable dish, you don't have that choice any more, an absence lamented by many a returning ex-pat. I don't know: is it the fault of channels, such as France 24, TV5 and Deutsche Welle for not wanting the outlay of putting themselves on to Freeview, or the fault of Freeview for not inviting them? But there's a big cultural gap between CNN and Russia Today, where European stations ought to be.
Television is the most wonderful window on to other people's worlds. More foreign stations would help us islanders look across the Channel.
* We've been through it with chocolate, red wine, aspirin and a whole lot more: things we're told are good for us that turn out, after more research, to be bad, and vice versa. Please may the next villain to be rehabilitated be salt. A recent survey lambasted certain brand-name pasta dishes as too salty and praised supermarket own-label ones for meeting health guidelines. Maybe people buy the brands for the taste? I don't; but I do find myself being increasingly liberal with the salt cellar when cooking – and that includes doctoring own-label sauces. I'm waiting for the good news.Reuse content