Leading Article : None of their business

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The Independent Online
The fiasco over the Family Law Bill will make a fitting epitaph for Conservative government. Think of all the hasty, ill-conceived legislation the Tories have inflicted on the country: the poll tax; railway privatisation; Michael Howard's various attempts to placate the "law and order" lobby; Kenneth Baker's preposterous national curriculum, which crippled the schools for years afterwards; the same minister's laughable Dangerous Dogs Bill. Think of how assiduously most of these measures were whipped through the division lobbies and how readily all the backbench rebellions crumbled. Now here comes a measure designed to remedy a law that, by wide agreement, is defective. The measure is drafted by Lord Mackay, the wisest and cleverest member of the Cabinet. It will make divorce more, not less, difficult because couples will have to wait at least a year, where now they sometimes wait as little as three months and, on average, only seven. Despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail, there is absolutely no sign of a groundswell of public feeling against the Bill.

Yet on Wednesday MPs were allowed a free vote and 169 Tories, including four Cabinet ministers, voted to amend the Bill. Do not be deceived by what looks like a matter of fine judgement - whether the waiting period for a divorce should be 18 months, rather than 12 months. Most of the Tory rebels are trying to wreck the Bill. More than 100 of them voted for another amendment that would have retained the concept of "fault" in divorce cases and so eliminated the Bill's central point. We are seeing an attempt to extend to Britain the politics of the American "moral majority", which, in reality, is neither moral nor a majority. Nor is it particularly new. It is the revival of an old strain in British public life: the desire of what John Stuart Mill called the "intrusively pious members of society" to poke their noses into other people's business. So strong is this desire, so pious are our politicians and newspaper commentators, that straightforward liberalism hardly seems an option: we must choose between different forms of meddling. The meddlers of the right prefer to keep "fault" in divorce, arguing that marriage should be a lifelong union and that, if couples split, one of them must be guilty of wickedness which must be publicly announced. The meddlers of the left put their faith in that panacea of the late 20th century, "counselling", which they propose to make compulsory for divorcing couples, even, if some reports are true, for those who propose to marry.

Once, marriage was largely a practical, economic arrangement. A "good" husband was one who brought home a regular wage, a "good" wife had the meals ready on time. All that changed once women's employability and earning power approached that of men. The decline of traditional marriage was as inevitable as the decline of unions and old Labour; it will continue as the number of women in work begins to overtake the number of men in work. Hard as they may find it to accept, there is nothing whatever that politicians can do about it. They can tighten the divorce laws as much as they wish and women will still throw out feckless, adulterous and thuggish men; many people, particularly if they have to endure some officious counsellor, will not bother to marry.

The state's legitimate interest is not in the preservation of marriage, still less in our private morals, but in the welfare of children. This point is well understood by Lord Mackay who, though a devout Christian, is not a politician and, therefore, not an instinctive meddler. Arguments about whether children are better off with warring parents or amicably separated parents are a waste of time. It depends entirely on circumstances and it is not axiomatic that adults should always sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children. But we know that children need emotional, social and financial support: Lord Mackay's proposed "cooling- off" period is admirably suited to concentrating everybody's minds on future arrangements for such support. If politicians want to do more for children - and perhaps, indirectly, help more parents to stay together - they have numerous options. These include better provision for paternity leave, better child care, more measures to tackle child poverty. But, unlike divorce laws, they entail awkward questions about public spending and taxation. Moral homilies about the decline of the family are much cheaper.