Labour must save the people, not their marriages

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The Independent Online
Gotcha! Or so the Daily Mail thought. The Lord Chancellor, it reported, has thrown his weight behind a government initiative to strengthen marriage: "And this from a man who famously `stole' the wife of a cabinet colleague, Donald Dewar." What's more this pro-marriage initiative is revealed in a week when Clare Short ... oh, forget it.

Well, is it a Back to Basics fiasco all over again? Not quite. It wasn't Lord Irvine's initiative at all. In all the pre-election noise of mid- March, an announcement from the then Lord Chancellor went entirely unreported. In almost his final act, Lord Mackay handed out pounds 500,000 to 13 pilot projects "with the potential to reduce the incidence of marriage breakdown ... I am confident that all of them will make valuable and positive contributions."

His curious choice of marriage-saving projects includes some that are distinctly bizarre. Take, for example, the grant to "A media campaign to change the culture of marriage" run by a Christian group called Marriage Resource. Media-wise they are not. (They had not heard of Melanie Phillips, whose lone voice calls for a moral revolution in her every column.)

I asked the organiser, Richard Kane, what change he had in mind. "Oh, a total cultural shift!" he said with fervour. "We're going to run a campaign to change attitudes, like the Clunk Click campaign for seat belts." Clunk click, married in handcuffs? So how will they launch this on the media? Their grant is for radio advertisements featuring scenes like these: "He: Darling, I'll do it! She: Don't you dare, darling ... He: Oh, but I will darling. She: Darling, that is the prize piece from our wedding dinner set ... without it the collection would be ... (FX smashing sound!) ... Worthless!!!!. Voice Over: Why the irrational behaviour? Why is she acting like this? What is the problem? Is it something he said? Is it something he hasn't said? ... If you'd like to know more about how to make your marriage work call 0171 316 0808 and we'll send you a useful information pack."

Where are these ads going out? Premier Radio, the London Christian radio station with, not surprisingly, the smallest audience, 0.3 per cent of listeners. This must be one the strangest government grants ever. What's more, Marriage Resource also won a second grant of pounds 75,000, to launch National Marriage Day - the mind boggles. Half the grants were given to Christian groups, reflecting Mackay's own Wee Free beliefs.

Some of the projects are eminently sensible - a new national helpline run by Relate, an all-black counselling service in Brixton by London Marriage Guidance and a scheme to train health visitors to spot post-natal depression and marital tension in new mothers. Others are well-meaning but dotty - the Christian group offering pre-marriage courses for couples who do not marry in church. (They hadn't had any takers yet when I called, but were leaving leaflets in libraries and GPs' surgeries.) By the time Lord Irvine took office, these grants had been disbursed - so it is hardly his fault.

So far, this Government has been breezily free of the moralising they toyed with before the election. The flirtation with Etzioni's communitarianism seems to be over, with its odour of lace-curtain moral vigilantism. When another bit of dirt was flung at Clare Short last weekend, how refreshing that official sources simply said "This is a private matter" and reported the Prime Minister to be "relaxed" about sexual allegations. "He is very tolerant about what goes on in people's private lives providing it does not impact on their jobs." And that is an end to the matter. Apart from a stream of abuse from Lynda Lee Potter, contrasting oddly with her same- breath gushing over philandering power-maniac James Goldsmith - "charming, irresistible, worthy of much respect" - the Clare Short story did not fly because the Government does not care. Blair has no Back to Basics banana skin to slip on. Does this mean the death-knell for dirty journalism?

How times have changed when Chris Smith can stand up at the Gay Pride rally, proclaim the right of gays to love one another and deliver a message of support from the Prime Minister. Even Jack Straw's critics have had to admit there has been not a finger-wagging word about bad parents, curfews and squeegee merchants as he gets down to the real problems of crime and punishment. Single mothers have been offered help instead of abuse. Gone is all that Tory preachifying which thinly veiled the nakedness of their policies; instead of family values, we have a national child-care strategy (or at least the embryo of one).

But some relics of the old regime remain. Lord Mackay's quaint view that marriages are made in heaven and can be "saved" like lost souls is enshrined in the language of the new divorce law, with its paradoxical talk of preserving family life. This will force all couples to attend an "Information Session" when they first sue for divorce. What will that consist of? Five trial versions have just begun, testing out one-hour sessions. Since the trials are voluntary, they will only reflect those already amenable to advice. This whole new lumbering apparatus, offering counselling to every divorcing couple, may turn into a very expensive and patronising national joke.

After all, how many divorces could have been "saved" with a spot more information? Would a "How To Make Your Marriage Work" information pack have helped Charles and Diana? Would pre-marriage counselling have saved Dorothea from Casaubon? Or rescued Albee's George and Martha from one another? Clunk Click, they were all locked together or "saved" as Lord Mackay would have it.

It's not that marriage guidance is a waste of time - as Relate's long waiting lists testify. "Non-prescriptive", Relate doesn't urge people back into marriage, but often helps them separate. The point is how much better they feel, not whether more couples stay together.

There is still time to change McKay's divorce law, scrap compulsion and give the money saved to cash-strapped Relate, where couples are queueing up to go of their own accord. As for compulsion, well, "Come in Mr Bluebeard, do sit down. Now have you ever considered Marriage Guidance?"