All week the two main political parties have been bickering like an old married couple about the best way to bring up families. Like most fractious spouses, they don't actually disagree about very much, but each small difference is an occasion to vent their mutual loathing. And the subject of their most bitter dispute is marriage. The Tories have promised to promote it (in their own half-cocked kind of way). Labour has made great hay with how unfair it is to advocate one style of family over another. Every sort of relationship is equally valid, said Ed Balls, and anyway if we cut newlyweds some slack on tax, the children of non-marrieds will be bullied at school. Hum. Really? Is that how bullies work? "Oi new boy! Your mum doesn't claim a weekly tax credit?!"
On the whole, though, most commentators so far seem to agree with Balls: marriage is no better than any other form of family life. For a government to provide a financial incentive to get hitched would be not only immoral, they say, but old hat. Marriage has been on its uppers since the 1970s, and though it can be retro chic, like calling a baby Ethel, it's on the way out.
Which all makes perfect liberal sense except ... this whole debate is at heart about children, about ensuring their happiness and health, and the irony is that children are marriage's keenest advocates. It's true – a reputable study done by the Opinion Research Business found that nearly 90 per cent of young people still want to get married. Whether they're the children of happy cohabiters, or brought up in single-parent homes (that's one in four British children) kids still want to get hitched. A decade of being offered lifestyle choices hasn't dented their resolve. It's almost spooky.
Spooky, but believable. Think back to the last time you discussed princesses with a young daughter, granddaughter, or niece: the princess marries the prince, right? She just has to. She doesn't agree to consider a period of cohabitation on the understanding that after a seven-year period of relative monogamy the prince will probably move on. She marries him. Even little boys like marriage. I'm going to marry Hermione Granger, they say with stout certainty.
So, what to do about these pint-sized throwbacks? How are we to educate them out of this regressive way of thinking? The answer is, we shouldn't, because the stats suggest the kids are right. I'm not married; I don't have a vested interest in proving that it's the state that suits couples best, but the more you examine the figures, the more it seems that children's keen little noses have sniffed out their best chance of happiness.
It's unfair, even nauseating, but married people on average suffer less physically and mentally; they are less at risk from depression and suicide. Any politician who's concerned about children should also be concerned that cohabiting couples are twice as likely to split up as marrieds, and children of lone parents really do suffer by comparison: they're 75 per cent more likely to fail at school; 70 per cent more likely to become drug addicts; 35 per cent more likely to be unemployed.
The usual explanation for this is that the stats are skewed – more middle-class men and women make it down the aisle, say Balls and co, and so their progeny have a better chance in life anyway. But studies have been done across and within socio-economic groups, and they get similar results.
We all know marriage can be hell – many excellent novels and films have depended on the idea – but it must also be true that there's something about knuckling down and getting spliced that suits people and perks them up, whatever their background.
By cosmic coincidence, in this, the week of the great political marital dispute, Scientific American has published a story on the science behind lasting love, which may offer some answers. What their story boils down to is that a successful relationship does not depend on falling dramatically in love so much as demonstrating trust. The author of the article recommends a series of horrifying exercises to do with your loved one each day: staring into their eyes for hours, and that nasty game involving falling backwards and being caught – all designed to show trust. His test subjects say it works a treat. So maybe that's the simple secret behind the marriage stats: it works because you will it to. What greater demonstration of trust and hope can there be than manning up in front of friends and family and declaring so defiantly against the odds "'til death do us part".
Enough anti-politics. Give us the real thing
Most people seem to agree that beefcake Brown's surprise win in Massachusetts is part of an international wave of anti-politics that's sweeping the West. Scott didn't triumph because he demonstrated star quality, more that the voters felt like taking the Democrat incumbent down a peg, and sticking it to Obama too.
I couldn't sympathise more with the people of Massachusetts; there's nothing better than putting some smug politician in their place. But after the election of Scott Brown, above, I think it's time we all paused for thought. Anti-politics has now reached the stage where we actually require a candidate to say "Well, I don't know much about politics" to stand a chance of being elected.
A homey story about shovelling snow goes down well, but any grasp of the general principles of democracy is a major no-no. But is this really such a good idea? Mightn't a little light understanding of government be a good thing? There's talk of Scott running for president now, perhaps with Palin by his side. Lets hope anti-politics isn't hoist by its own petard.
Here's one double act to cherish
News that 80-year-old Sir Peter Hall is to direct his daughter Rebecca in Twelfth Night at the Cottesloe Theatre is terrific but also worrying.
I interviewed Sir Peter last year, and though the great man was mostly sunk in gloom, when he talked about Rebecca, his face brightened. He said he thought she acted the socks off the more pneumatic Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and added that if there was one play he'd like to do before died, it would be Twelfth Night with Rebecca as Viola. Twelfth Night was one of the very first plays Hall took on in 1954. I very much hope he isn't thinking it's going to be his last.
Put the coffee on, George
Was there something a little irritating about George Clooney's telethon in aid of Haiti? There was the name: Help for Haiti Now – that "Now" got under my skin.
And then there was the suspicion that celebs queued up to be involved not so much to raise dosh as to raise their profiles. Well, who cares, I suppose, as long as it helped. The real problem I think is that Clooney just isn't cut out to be a Bono or a Geldof. He's too goofy, with too little gravitas.
"It's a big world out there," he said on Friday, "and we all have a lot of responsibility to look out for people who can't look out for themselves." Pipe down, handsome George, and go back to making Nespresso.
*On Thursday night, late, about midnight, I was walking through London WC1 on my way home when I spotted one of those little Smart cars with a CCTV perched like a periscope on top. Because I am a busybody, I peered inside and saw two men in Camden's dark green jerseys, one snoozing, the other staring at the dashboard, desperate with boredom. What on earth were they filming in the middle of the night? I followed the line of the lens. The only possible answer, on this dark and abandoned stretch of road, was a small sign declaring that the speed limit for this patch was 20mph. It's not a residential area; it was long past kiddie time and even the drunks had ambled home. So what's the point, Camden Council? What great service are you doing the community? Who asked you to be Big Brother?