To have and to hold - if the spin doctors demand it

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The Independent Online
No sooner is Charles Kennedy elected than he is under pressure to marry his girlfriend of two years, Sarah Gurling. Mr Kennedy is the new leader of - what is it called nowadays? I hesitate. Ah yes. The LDP, Liberal Democratic Party, once the SDP or Socialist Democratic Party, once simply the Liberals. "Mr Kennedy's friends," it is reported, "feel he wants to marry." He has been an MP since he was 23, they say. "He has missed out."

I suspect that what Mr Kennedy's friends mean is that their man ought to marry, because the electorate would prefer it. Up there, at party headquarters, they think the voters don't want any live-in partnering nonsense: they want certificates of sexual respectability and permanence. Our political leaders, say the focus groups, must set an example to the rest of us, since the Royal Family, once entrusted with the task, has made such a hash of it. If a politician isn't married, with a visible wife in the photo shoot, he will lose votes and credibility. If not a marriage, an engagement will do. Gordon Brown gets on fine with his. This is the age of image and perception, forget political theory or legislative aspiration, and first things first. Third-party insurance: Kennedy must marry.

Mr Kennedy is described as "exuberant", Miss Gurling as "sensible". I daresay both might quarrel privately with the definition, but I can see it does make good narrative sense to the Lib Dems. They can work with these adjectives. Isn't the fabulous Ffion reported to be working away behind the scenes, imagemaking for new husband Hague, planning long walks along windy beaches? Isn't Mrs Blair's summer hat international news? Can the Liberal Democrats be left behind? A Mrs Kennedy, tempering Mr Kennedy's wild energy, can generate extra column inches, as Mr Kennedy's partner or girlfriend will not. Already a difficulty. If the word partner is used, it suggests a live-in relationship - some older voters may remember that as living in sin. If girlfriend, then the couple are on date-and- dinner terms only and the paparazzi will be out in force trying to disprove it, and that could lead to negative publicity.

Now the public always likes a good wedding, with dresses and designers and pictures, and with any luck Hello, but there is a limit to it. The public knows a wedding presages a state of togetherness likely to last for an average of nine years only. Today's wedding is tomorrow's divorce. Marriage itself hardly gets a look in. Once men and women had secret affairs, in the interest of stability and the social order, but these are now seen as out of order. More correct to declare the new love to the world and dispose of the old, to the benefit of lawyers, counsellors and the housing market.

Marriage begins to feel rather old-fashioned. Even those with fully certificated spouses will these days refer to them as partners. "My husband", "my wife" have an antiquated ring. We no longer own each other, we are all fully functioning separate earning individuals, who happen to choose to link up with one another. Let Mr Kennedy and Miss Gurling ignore all pressure and be part of the new world, not flee to the feeble protection of the old.

Let them remember it may be safer for politicians in particular not to be married. Had Robin Cook been single he could have moved his erotic allegiance without comment. Marriage did not save Ron Davies. Had Clinton not been legally linked to Hillary there would not have been the Monica Lewinski fuss or, some say, a diversionary war in Kosovo.

We begin to understand, with the rest of Europe, that it's idle to expect sexual propriety from successful politicians. Mitterrand famously had both his wife and mistress at his funeral. German leaders live openly with partners. Who cares, if the nation flourishes? The US President may be impeached but he is still in place: Wall Street is still booming. The brave have always felt they deserve the fair. The best politicians are energetic and outward-looking people. The whole object of the male lust for power and status, according to the Social Darwinians, is to have the pick of the best available women. The most we can hope for from our male leaders, if this is truly the case, is that affairs of state keep them so busy they have no time to get into trouble. The same does not seem apply to female politicians. Whatever Ann Widdecombe's or Mo Mowlam's domestic arrangements, or Clare Short's, they are not seen to be of more than passing interest. The ties their menfolk wear provoke no comment. Presumably the concern of the female politician is seen to be the welfare of the country, not themselves.

There are any number of reasons why couples choose to live together and not marry. Many quote the experience of friends who cohabited happily enough until marriage, when the relationship collapsed. (This is meant to be to do with unconscious expectations delivered from the parental generation of what wives do and what husbands "do" - different from what just plain people do - which are then not met.) The legal implications of marriage, when it comes to property - half his, half hers - seem beyond all reason and the cost of divorce, should things go wrong, is atrocious. The couple may he working so hard they never have the time nor energy to get round to it. They may think marriage is for babies and they don't mean to have any. Or perhaps they can't afford a wedding: or if it can't be like a Spice Girl's, why bother? Perhaps the embarrassment factor is too great: which of the much re-married parents and step-parents to ask to the ceremony? Or perhaps they tried it once and it failed. Lack of emotional commitment seems the least of the reasons.

Let Mr Kennedy and Miss Gurling ignore their PR advisers and do as they see fit: let them work out between them the fact that unmarried women outlive married ones by a margin but married men live far longer than unmarried ones, and decide which to go for. Let them rest assured that the electorate wishes them well but would rather have their integrity than their respectability, and can forgo another wedding. Two months ago the few of us who tried out proportional representation in the European election weren't much impressed. The papers were too wide to fit into the voting booths. Perhaps the friends at party headquarters can put aside their matchmaking and turn their attention to that?