Marital breakdown is a fact of life. Accept it

We are a nation of hypocrites when it comes to divorce. We should greet the removal of `fault' as a rare liberal milestone

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Today the Family Law Bill will finally complete its passage through Parliament. Encrusted with an assortment of barnacle-like amendments, this leaky ship will limp into port this evening. Yet its fundamental principle remains intact. It kills the concept of fault in divorce.

Today will be looked back on as an iconic moment - the day they took shame out of divorce. Social historians will use this convenient date to mark a milestone in changing public attitudes. This is why the Tory right have rebelled in such spectacular fashion. They are right to mark the symbolism of this day.

What started as a minor technical adjustment has turned into a last-ditch moral battle. Lord Mackay has steered this vessel through battery from left and right. On and on he has sailed, pretending this is not a liberal measure on the grounds that that for nine out of 10 couples divorce will now take longer. New figures show that currently 40 per cent of divorcing couples complete the process in six months, 80 per cent within a year. Under the new law it will take everyone 21 months.

The new law will also require more of divorcing couples, prodding them away from damaging and expensive litigation towards mediation - which the Lord Chancellor has sometimes conveniently misrepresented as a way of keeping couples together. Lord Mackay keeps intoning his mantra - this will make divorce harder and slower, not easier.

Divorce may take longer, but in one respect the moral critics of this Bill are right: this law is far more than the sum of its rum parts. It is a symbol of our changed times. A peculiar symbol since it has all been an extraordinary legislative mistake. The Government, like time-share suckers, didn't know what it was signing up to. How easily it was bamboozled by the lawyers' talk of small technical tidying up procedures. It certainly did not read the small print that, by removing the notion of fault, has turned this into one of the few liberal milestones of a reactionary era.

This is a devilish death-blow to the institution of marriage, say the Tory rebels. If there is no sanction in divorce, what is marriage worth? It is already an easier contract to break than a car-hire agreement or renting a television. If you can behave as badly as you like and never feel the blame, if you can do monstrous injustice to your partner and yet go unchallenged by the law, what hope of marriage retaining any useful meaning whatever?

But what they can't see is that this is law just about catching up with the way people behave. Right-wing social engineers imagine the law can bludgeon people into living and loving differently. It can't. This fine June, as you see couples tripping into their white wedding cars, remember that more than half of them will divorce: no law is ever going to be able to stop them falling out of love and leaving home. There can scarcely be a person (common or Royal) in the land who has not had divorce or periods of single parenthood somewhere within their extended family. What sense can you make of a law that proclaims one partner "guilty" in all those failed marriages?

Divorce law has become a perfect example of a law abused and mocked. At the moment, couples can get a divorce after two years' separation if both are agreed. But they can get an instant divorce if one of them claims unreasonable behaviour or adultery. Some three-quarters of couples opt for the quick route, and those with children do so more than those without. This process often adds to the ill-will between them.

It has long been the practice for these cases not to be contested. However wronged one partner might feel by being accused of unreasonable behaviour, lawyers would sensibly advise them that there was no point at all in wasting money fighting it. One way or another, they would be divorced willy-nilly. Judges rubber-stamped the allegations and few partners ever had the satisfaction of their day in court denouncing the iniquities of their spouse, or defending themselves against trumped-up charges.

Long ago judges realised it would take more than the wisdom of Solomon to seek out the roots of discord in a marriage. Sitting up there on their benches, what were they to make of the quarrels played out before them?

She abandoned the marital home for her lover so He claimed She was to blame. She counter-claimed that He was a drunken monster and a philanderer to boot. He said he was driven to drink and into the arms of kinder women by Her outrageous temper - and on and on it went, wasting the court's time to no useful conclusion, beyond the obvious fact that somehow or another this marriage was at an end. Friends take sides and earnestly discuss between themselves which one was really to blame, and there are as many different opinions as there are observers of the marriage.

The bitterness is usually terrible and according to the London Marriage Guidance Council, one partner is nearly always left much angrier and more distressed than the other. Amicable divorces are few and far between. The new law is designed to encourage mediation and reduce the acrimony, persuading divorcing couples to behave better, especially in front of their children. But only Utopians would imagine that even the most divinely inspired legislation would have much effect on how embittered people feel.

Widespread divorce signals profound social change. Its speed has left many people full of breathless social anxiety. What will become of us once society's "fundamental building block" has tumbled down? Each divorce viewed close up has its reasons. But when people contemplate the big picture and the national figures, fits of social panic ensue. There is plenty to worry about - not least a rising social security bill paying for children unsupported by fathers. We have failed to deal with the problems partly because policy-makers have expended too much energy on trying to turn the clock back, instead of dealing with social circumstances as they are.

We are left with a disjunction between what people do and what they say they believe should be. Public opinion is out of kilter with public behaviour and the result is a kind of national hypocrisy. Like reading Noddy books for comfort, the public wants newspapers that pretend we still live in a cosy world, with everyone tucked up in the right bed. People seem to want "values" expounded that they have not much intention of abiding by themselves. Change has been too fast for public attitudes to catch up, but they will. And this divorce Bill will be seen in later years as a moment when some of that double-think was ditched.

For the time being, the cheap press, whether the Daily Mail or the even cheaper Times, will certainly not abandon the concept of fault in divorce - of that we can be certain. Prurient newspapers will go on making high- handed judgements where Solomon fears to tread.

They will go on taking sides in order to victimise. The tale of the guilty party is just too good, embellished as it always must be with half truths and one-sided stories. Even when the concept of fault has been removed from the law, the cheap press will continue to relish its role as divorce court judge and jury - as I have learnt to my cost in the past 10 days.

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