Keep out of the bedroom

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The Independent Online
ONCE upon a time, when village greens and warm beer flourished and old maids cycled to Holy Communion, everybody's Mummy and Daddy seemed to be married. They might quarrel, they might get on each other's nerves, they might even sometimes stray with barmaid or milkman, but they gritted their teeth and got on with it. In those days, the rare absent father was sometimes explained by tragic death or by extended "business" commitments but, more often than not, nobody asked. A husband in prison was scarcely more shameful than divorce, which was spoken about only in whispers and then not in front of children. Mummy at the kitchen stove, Daddy home at five, Uncle Mac on the radio, the British Empire in good health - life would always be the same, for ever and ever and ever.

But life never stays the same, whatever the wishes of the Daily Mail, Lady Olga Maitland and the assorted right-wing Conservatives who want the Cabinet to throw out Lord Mackay's Divorce Reform Bill. The Conservative Party exhorts the nation to embrace 20th-century economic change but expects people to model their social and moral behaviour on the codes of the 19th century. We are instructed not to expect a job for life but we should, nevertheless, aspire to having a partner for life. We live in a world of insecurity, where even the phrase "safe as houses" no longer has meaning. Why should the family be any different? Why, indeed, should marriage not be regarded as just another restrictive practice, to be swept away along with all those laws and union customs that protected jobs? It is not easy to see why a free market in goods and services should not extend to a free market in morals.

In some respects, indeed, that has already happened. Cohabitation is accepted in a way that would have been hard to imagine even 30 years ago. Couples can and do enter into all sorts of contracts and understandings short of marriage, which has itself become little more than a standardised contractual recognition of the human need to profess (however insincerely or mistakenly) undying love. This is not to deny that many couples, perhaps the majority, take their marriage vows very seriously. But many others regard marriage as an excuse to dress up and hold a big party, as a public celebration of a union that may last more than a few weeks. This is why the Tory right's attempt to protect the traditional family is so hopeless. Nobody should deny that the family's decline is a tragedy, particularly for children. But it was not for children that most marriages survived. It was the lack of alternatives for women, who often had no jobs of their own and no prospects of alternative housing. A return to that situation is unthinkable. In any case, break-up is no less of a tragedy for the thousands of children who are born to cohabiting parents.

If anything, Lord Mackay's Bill will make divorce harder, not easier. At present, the large majority of divorces are completed in three to six months by couples using the "quickie" procedure, where one partner alleges fault (which is rarely contested) in the other. Mackay proposes to remove fault, to make everybody wait a year and to require full settlements, of children and property, before couples go their separate ways. In other words, the marriage contract will be cancelled by mutual agreement in as orderly a fashion as possible, as contracts should be. It is perfectly true that, where one partner does not wish to cancel the contract, he or she can now hold out for two or even five years and would be forced to an earlier settlement under the Bill. But if Tory backbenchers consider this wrong they should aim to amend the Bill during its passage through Parliament, not to strangle it at birth.

Either way, their actions are not likely to make much difference to the precipitous decline of the traditional family. Personal behaviour is influenced by religion, morals, social and family expectations, not by politicians. A straying spouse does not pause to consider the views of John Major or Lady Olga Maitland, as evidenced by the behaviour of Tory MPs. If the Tory right is truly concerned about children's welfare there is ample scope for their compassion: the millions who have unemployed parents; the millions whose schooling and health is affected by bad diet and bad housing; the millions whose freedoms are restricted and lives endangered by the unrestrained rise of the motor car. These are the subjects that should concern politicians, not our personal morals.