There is more than one ideal family

For women who have left violent marriages, the idea that living outside marriage is second best must seem like a bad joke
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For women who have left violent marriages, the idea that living outside marriage is second best must seem like a bad joke

For women who have left violent marriages, the idea that living outside marriage is second best must seem like a bad joke

By Natasha Walter

13 November 2000

At last, some praise can go to the women. Bossy Margaret Jay and nanny Tessa Jowell and stroppy Harriet Harman have had a hard time from the press since Labour came to power, and not just from the tabloids. But those of us who see Tony Blair and Jack Straw and David Blunkett as the leading lights of the bossy nanny tendency in the Cabinet will not be surprised to hear that, according to reports over the weekend, they have just been saved from potential embarrassment by the women around them.

The Government's White Paper on the family, to be published imminently, started off in draft form with lots of traditional noises about the wonders of the two-parent, married family. A senior Whitehall source told The Independent on Sunday that the first draft of the White Paper "sought to promote marriage" and pushed marriage as "the best model" for family life. But Margaret Jay, Margaret Hodge and Harriet Harman, among others, realised that some people out there would find that message patronising and faintly absurd.

Isn't it great that some people in the Government have realised that we don't need to be handed down directions on how we should be living our lives? For a while, the number of politicians who thought that the Government should just get on with what we put it there to do - organising decent social security and education and health systems - seemed to be dwindling alarmingly. Instead, the Government seemed to have decided that their job was to moralise.

You'd think that some of them - Jack Straw and Tony Blair particularly - would have learnt a little humility from their own teenage children's rebellions. If your children were found dead drunk in Leicester Square or dealing cannabis in a London pub, would you be so keen to jump up and down telling your neighbours about how to keep their children on the straight and narrow?

But these men can't resist a little preaching. Tony Blair's instincts on the family have always been conservative. In one of the first interviews he gave after he was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1994, to Brian Walden, he said that he believed two parents were better than one and that he disagreed with women who had children intending to bring them up alone. In the ill-starred speech he gave to the Women's Institute last summer, he wandered into a lot of foggy rhetoric about "the case for marriage" and "the forces that hold communities together - the family and the church".

The Government loves to promote a moral stance about marriage because that makes it look caring about families without necessitating any grand expenditure on complicated social programmes. It's much easier to go around saying that parenting isn't all that it should be, and producing guidelines - as the Government is now doing through the National Family and Parenting Institute - than putting your money where your mouth is and looking at how your own policies are still failing children.

Because it's the children that really count here. Moral statements are nothing unless they are backed up with moral action. If the Government made a concerted effort to end the way that family life is constantly undermined by its own policies, by appalling social services and meagre rights to parental leave, they would have quite enough to be getting on with until the next election, or the one after that, with no time for sermons.

Until we see more substantial sums being ploughed into parental leave, childcare provision, failing schools, and benefits for poorer families, we should take the Government's woolly statements on how much it cares about families with a sack of salt.

But we can also ask, why is it that so few on the left can find anything positive to say about the decline of marriage? Why is it simply taken for granted - and not just by commentators like Patricia Morgan and Melanie Phillips - that the world would be a better place if more children were brought up in married families?

Even those women who have steered the Government away from promoting marriage are unlikely to be heard talking about the positive aspects of new family structures. But since we live in a society in which increasing numbers of people are choosing to live outside marriage, isn't it odd that single-parent families and cohabiting couples still get such a bad press?

Everywhere in the media and government, half-baked statistics are trotted out to show how children of married parents are less likely to be criminals or to fail at school or to fall down drunk in Leicester Square, and how cohabiting parents break up more frequently and easily than married parents.

All those statistics fail to establish a cause rather than a correlation between new family structures and childhood problems. All fail to take into account the pressures of poverty, and what that means for children in terms of their environment, their schools, their peer groups and the expectations they form. And all of them only work to make the growing numbers of people who are choosing to live without marriage wonder if they are the only people in the world to have made that a positive choice.

Living outside marriage can certainly be a positive choice. It isn't just about making the best of a bad job, though that, too, is one of the choices it gives people, especially women. For women who have left violent marriages - and these make up a large proportion of single parents - the idea that living outside marriage is second best must seem like a bad joke.

And, what's more, for many cohabitees, not getting married is actually a positive choice. There are many people who really don't feel that their relationships would be any more secure or joyful if they spent a few thousand pounds on rings and cakes and dresses and subjected their friends to long speeches and an endless drive to a cold marquee. It's a decision they've made, not a state they've just fallen into. It isn't second best, but the first choice.

Living with your partner without marriage means that you can set your relationship apart from the tacky blandishments of the tabloid press and the nanny state and the whingeing of the Bridget Joneses. Is that so hard to understand? Perhaps so many people just don't get it because there is still so little cultural echo of that choice. You pretty much have to go back to the 19th century to find passionate defences of love without marriage, like doomed Sue Bridehead trying to convince Jude that, "Legal obligation is destructive to a passion whose essence is its gratuitousness".

That's not to say that we don't get the occasional positive presentation of the decision not to get married - like the ending of Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant suggests to Andie McDowell that she might like "not to get married and to stay not married to me for the rest of your life". But by and large such moments are still drowned out by a welter of stories in which marriage is the ever-receding dream on the horizon.

Although the cultural scene may still present marriage as the site of romance and idealism in relationships, for many of us, that idealism is better served by a free relationship that isn't bound by outdated conventions. And if the politicians don't get that, then they should do what they are sensibly being advised now - to stay way clear of our private lives.