Divorce: our century's great liberator

The break-up of the Mandelas' marriage, as of any other, is a cause for celebration not shame
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Many marriages are made in hell: Nelson and Winnie Mandela can testify to that. How undignified for one of the world's noblest men to be brought so low in the divorce courts. "I asked her to settle it amicably and quietly and not to wash our dirty linen in public," he said mildly in court. Not Winnie. She wanted her day in court, her pound of flesh from that frail frame, with a gallon of blood for her gravy.

The grotesque behaviour of Winnie, the trouble she causes wherever she turns her power-hungry vengeful eye has been the sorry spectacle of the world. Yet Nelson Mandela's exemplary dignity, careful not to retaliatenor publicly condemn, has kept him from tumbling into the humiliations suffered by other prominent divorcees.

For us in Britain, this front-page extravaganza of public dirty washing comes at a salutory time. On Monday the Commons debates the hotly contested new divorce law in the Family Law Bill which will end the whole concept of fault and blame. Its fierce critics call it a charter for immorality, undermining the meaning of marriage. Why shouldn't the wronged partner have their injury put down on the record? What kind of useless contract is a marriage certificate if it is easier to walk away from than a TV rental agreement or a package holiday booking? They are horrified that the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery" will no longer feature in British law.

This morning Tory MPs who oppose the reform will meet together in a cabal organised by Dame Jill Knight and Baroness Young, the leader of the attempted revolt in the House of Lords. Dame Jill says the back benches are abuzz with indignation. Edward Leigh, one of the prime opponents, is among those pressing for wrecking amendments.

The most controversial would restore the concept of fault. But Leigh also wants the present waiting period of one year extended to two years, starting with an initial compulsory six months in which the couples are forced to undergo "reconciliation counselling by people like Relate". His proposal is designed to make them get back together again. (Winnie Mandela has been trying to insist on similar mediation by a discredited apartheid tribal chief, but her husband will have none of it.)

"Almost every Tory I speak to in the Commons is unhappy about this Bill," says Leigh. "It will only pass because of Labour's support." The virulent campaign in the Daily Mail against the Bill has fuelled back-bench rebellion. Yet for all the heat and fury, the Bill will pass.

In the debate the politicians can be counted on to miss the point yet again - that divorce is not a blight, but a blessing to most people.

As a ritual opener, every speaker in the debate next week will intone the rubric that marriage break-up is a disaster. Separation will be lamented as a universally acknowledged calamity. Couples will be described as lost sheep who have fallen over a precipice in the dark, as if they tumbled into divorce by accident without noticing where they were going. A period of reflection will be recommended to bring them to their senses, although anyone who knows anyone who has divorced is likely to see that this is mostly bunkum.

Political discussion of divorce takes place in a realm of airy unreality far removed from the world inhabited by real live couples. Politicians of all parties can be relied on to adopt an unctuous sorrowful tone implying that if only couples understood the consequences, they might change their minds. There will be high-minded exhortations to them to think of the good of society. The metaphors of the drapery and construction industries will thud upon the floor of the House with marriage as the "fabric of society" or the "fundamental building block" - or possibly even the restaurant trade since one right-wing think-tank says divorce is "eating out the heart of society".

Tell that to Nelson and Winnie or to the Waleses. Apply any of that theoretical stuff about marriage as an "institution" to any divorcing couple you know, and it makes no sense. People often divorce awkwardly, bitterly, painfully, miserably. But not accidentally. Often one partner wants to divorce and the other doesn't. Often one is the apparent deserter, the other the abandoned. The end of the affair is a wretched business and there is no better demonstration of that truism than the current Mandela divorce. But that doesn't mean it is wrong or a mistake. In almost every case I know it has made people happier in the end.

Instead of guilt and worry, there should be a celebration of divorce, the single greatest liberator of this century. We are living in the midst of a social revolution whose ending we do not yet know. No one planned it, people voted with their feet, like trampling down the Berlin Wall.

There will be the last dying clarion calls on Monday for a return to the good old days of shotgun weddings. Those were the balmy days of beatings behind lace curtains, of desperately unhappy couples locked together until eternity in a punishment worse than anything the penal system has to offer. Those were the happy days of women marrying out of terror of being left on the shelf, gay sexuality repressed into loveless weddings, single mothers hounded to give up their babies for adoption, shame and disgrace the weapons to dragoon a population into living miserably. Well, should the Mandelas and the Waleses have been forced to do their porridge until death did them part?

Social chaos, the moralists warn, can be the only fall-out of this revolution. There is dark talk of the fall of empires, morally rotten at the core. All this retro-angst is understandable enough as we stand in the ruins of the "institution" of marriage, uncertain how to live happily in the new landscape.

The framework of the institution remains - children are still, confusingly, offered a Mummy and Daddy image as the ideal, although their own lives may be quite different. Economically, we have made no adaptation to divorce. Still only marriage to a breadwinner provides financial stability for most women and children. Most divorced women fall upon social security with no way to earn enough to become breadwinners, women's wages being what they are and childcare non-existent. Until we create a social and economic system that makes it possible for mothers to both earn and care for their children, divorce will look like a disaster and not a liberator to many people.

But when next week the final remnants of the old social shackles fall, it will be clear that there is no turning back now. Perhaps at last politicians will stop mouthing windy platitudes about the happy Fifties family, and start to think seriously about how to adjust society to the way people live now.

And as we watch the painful drama of the Mandela marriage break-up, we should share the South African president's joy at being released at last from his other life sentence.