I take New Labour to be my lawful wedded nanny

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The Independent Online
THE FAMILY is the minefield of modern governments. Any full-hearted endorsement by New Labour of Old Marriage was bound to be followed by the news that some male MP was about to leave his spouse and brood for an interloping female. One duly did, only to be followed by the even more distracting multi-part saga of Ron Davies's visit to Clapham Common.

Labour's Green Paper on the family was itself an odd concoction. It went out of its way to make a lot of people upset by delivering edicts on what sort of family is best, while shying away from embracing the full consequences of its megaphoned moral rigour. "On balance," it announced, "children are best brought up in a two-parent family by their natural, married parents." On what balance? The only sensible answer would be a statistical one, meaning that if you took the number of unhappy families with married parents and their genetic offspring, and compared them with the unhappiness quotient of single parents and other arrangements, the smug marrieds would carry off the We Got it Right trophy.

This is unsurprising. Marriage is a tested way of living together and bringing up children. People who stay married are more economically stable than those who don't. Divorce impoverishes all but the lawyers. The presence of two parents of different gender is generally a benefit, assuming that the parents are not so incompatible that the strain is intolerable all round. We don't need the Government to tell us that marriage is a good thing. But what is it precisely that they are trying to tell us about cohabiting parents, families which include the offspring of a previous relationship, or for that matter, adopted children?

Families are not just numbers of people: they are individual units which make their way in the world, some more happily than others. The way the Green Paper divided families into two groups - married-with-kids given an A grade, and cohabitees awarded a B minus "could do better" by Home Secretary Jack Straw - will sharpen the appetite for more financial discrimination in the tax and benefit system between types of family.

If the Government had hoped to silence its critics with this approach, it was doomed to disappoint. You can't satisfy fundamentalists other than by giving them everything they want. Having objected that New Labour did not speak clearly enough about the superiority of heterosexual marriage to other models of co-habitation and child-rearing, they finally get it - and complain that the mere endorsement of wedlock is not enough. The next demand is that the married family should be rewarded more substantially than the non-married one, so that only the foolish, the rich or the conscientious objectors manage to resist joining the ranks.

The trouble with real, flesh and blood people is that they are very good at finding ways round the sort of unbending rules for life than the family fundamentalists want. If you give them the money, they'll get married all right. This does not, however, make them behave as the moralists require after the deed is done. In Germany, it is worth living in "tax marriage", even if you never see your spouse and have run off with a string of nubile night-club hostesses. That bit doesn't show in the figures, of course, so German people appear to observe the traditions of marriage far more than is really the case.

We could go down this road of institutionalised farce. Our own fundamentalists have come up with a far more direct way to make us stay married when we no longer wish to be so - namely by making it more difficult to get divorces. Easy. In the make-believe world of those who seek to impose a secular version of Sharia law, retaining a stigma for marital break-up will change our minds about splitting up. We managed one of the highest divorce rates even with our fault-obsessed divorce law, which so ably compounds the hurt of an intrinsically hurtful experience. So heaven knows why they think this proposal will turn the tide.

Like all monomaniacal believers, the pro-family lobby believes that there is a single solution to complex social problems. If only the Government would stint with the decree nisis and make married families richer than non-married ones, Britain would change from a rather confused society still trying to make sense of the consequences of free markets, sexual liberalisation and the decline of traditions into a harmonious, ordered and secure place. The belief that moral rearmament can be effected using the levers of the state would be worrying if it weren't so unlikely to succeed.

Melanie Phillips, the columnist who has emerged as the most authoratitive and eloquent of the fundamentalists, attributes the Government's hesitation to discriminate more firmly in favour of marriage to the fact that "the vast majority of ministers and advisers are themselves caught up in irregular lifestyles". But, as Ms Phillips has also noticed, these "irregular" lifestyles are very frequent - one might say regular. She is arguing for a return to a norm which is no longer normal. One might plausibly argue that inexperienced young men and women are "caught up" in single parenthood and that they should be warned off doing so until they are able to cope, financially and emotionally. But it is misleading to say that the millions of mature people who cohabit are "caught up" in something. The truth is that lot of people choose to live that way.

Ms Phillips, at least, is honest about the endgame of all this. She believes that "the strongest families are those where there is the clearest separation of roles". So it is under the Taliban, but most of us would not volunteer to embrace it. The remorseless logic of this position ends up with "primary and secondary roles in life". Women, unsurprisingly, get the primary role in child-care, backed by the state through its disbursements, and men get first call on the available jobs.

Meanwhile, the sensible parts of the Green Paper - which discuss ways to make marriage and christenings appealing to those without religious beliefs, and which aim to expand the roles of health visitors and midwives beyond the first months of a baby's life in order to help vulnerable families through the most stressful times - are all mocked by the impossibilists as being either too partial or too intrusive.

Far nobler to dream of grand and righteous designs. They won't be happy until they get a Government which presumes to apportion the roles of men and women at home and in the work-place. Not with my vote, it won't.