Unwilling to commit, the Facebook generation has turned its back on marriage

Plus: Zaha Hadid deserves better than this shoddy treatment

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The Independent Online

How can we sell marriage? It desperately needs rebranding. The Pope has been visiting the US and extolling the virtues of family life within matrimony, but even his Holiness can’t stop the rot in the UK. Marriage has never been less fashionable here. It’s increasingly seen as an option, not a necessity for heterosexual couples, and that has profound implications for the next generation.

One piece of news that went largely unremarked this week was the publication of new statistics revealing that more children are now being born out of marriage in the North of England and Scotland, a figure as high as 60 per cent in the North-east. I am not a religious person, nor a po-faced oldie who thinks that marriage is the answer to social stability. Yes, I’ve been divorced several times – though there were no children involved.

Nevertheless, I can’t understand why modern mothers can’t grasp the simple truth that marriage gives them and their children legal protection in the event of a break-up. And marriage gives fathers rights and guaranteed access.

Statistics indicate that marriage can help to keep a family together. Three-quarters of women who are married when they give birth are still with that partner when that child is 15. But if they marry after the child is born, that figure drops to less than half; if the couple never marry, only a third will still be together when their child is a teenager.

This makes sobering reading. Of course, one-parent families raise children that are as happy as two-parent ones, but the impact of marital break-up on this scale on child development must be worrying. It has also led to a huge number of costly disputes in the courts over property and access. The only people benefiting from our pig-headed attitudes to marriage are lawyers.

Perhaps the answer is to rethink civil partnerships as a no-frills alternative – “marriage-lite”, if you like. The Scottish Assembly is considering extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, but the Scottish National Party has said it is “not persuaded” on the matter and a vote will not be taken until after the elections next May. In the UK, a mixed-sex couple has issued a legal challenge demanding the extension of civil partnerships, but there still seems no appetite to do so. In fact, the Government has been considering the cancelling civil partnerships altogether in the future and just offering marriage to all.

Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, is against this draconian step, and he’s right. In the Netherlands, civil partnerships have been extended and 10 per cent of couples are choosing it over marriage. In law, there is very little difference between civil partnership and marriage. Couples have the same rights relating to child access and family matters, wills, estates, tax and so on. A civil partner can become a step-parent.

We need a clever advertising agency and some “blue sky thinkers” to sell civil partnerships to straight people. There’s no slushy ceremony with prayers and pledges; it’s just a piece of paper, but that piece of paper gives you so much protection if anything goes wrong.

I suspect the reason many people aren’t getting married is simple: they are selfish individuals who think their individuality and their freedom will be compromised if they enter into a contract. The Facebook generation – too scared to commit to anything other than a selfie.


Zaha Hadid deserves better than this shabby treatment

Dame Zaha Hadid has just been awarded the Gold Medal by RIBA, an award whose previous recipients include Frank Gehry and Le Corbusier. This brilliant, fiercely intelligent woman (whom I’ve always found charming and kind) was interviewed by Sarah Montague on the Today programme on Thursday and the result was a disgrace.

Hadid doesn’t suffer fools, but why should she? Her work validates her genius of which, sadly, too little has been built in this country. Confronted with one of the world’s top 10 architects, Sarah Montague kicked off by focusing on sexism and prejudice. Not talent, but temperament. There was no acknowledgement of what Hadid actually does, which is create landmark buildings – such as the London Aquatics Centre – which have her handwriting stamped on every surface;  buildings which excite love and loathing in equal measure.

In that respect, she is unique among her peers. You’d hardly kick off a chat with Rem Koolhaas or Norman Foster talking about whether they have faced discrimination, or whether they have scary tempers. Montague compounded her faux pas by claiming that 1,200 immigrant workers died during the construction of Hadid’s football stadium in Qatar, a statement which is incorrect. Then followed another negative line of questioning: Montague claimed the Japanese government had pulled the plug on Hadid’s National Sports Centre. At this point Hadid hung up. Later that day, she was interviewed by the BBC’s Will Gompertz – but even he managed to dredge up “discrimination”.

By the way, the same fearless investigative reporter Montague was simpering all over Grace Jones on Today last Monday, describing her as “iconic” and a “legend”. Seems that Hadid is just too “scary” to treat with the respect she deserves.


We need more than nudging to change our bad habits

On the subject of attitudes, there’s been a lot of talk about the Government’s use of “nudge” tactics to persuade us to alter our behaviour, to eat better, exercise more and stop dropping litter. But can anyone show me the evidence this tactic is working?

The World Health Organisation revealed this week that, on average, women in the UK are going to die two and a half years earlier than most of our counterparts in Europe. Put bluntly, that’s because we sit on our arses and swill buckets of booze. Don’t tell me sunshine plays a part: Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland and Luxembourg all score better.

After the Olympics, with its costly promises of a healthy “legacy”, it has emerged that British children are doing less sport since the Games. The Scots have discovered that the Commonwealth Games, held in Glasgow last year, also had a negligible impact, with 4 per cent of the population saying they were “thinking about” doing more exercise. Actually, they are probably watching TV, swigging a drink and eating chocolate. Any “thought” of exercise constitutes a nanosecond of indecision about when to walk to the fridge for a refill.


A side of China George Osborne might not have seen 

George Osborne tours China drumming up business for Britain, promising Shakespeare in Mandarin while touting for investment in nuclear, rail and retail projects.

We do not know what conversations were had (if any) about human rights, but the Chancellor should pay a visit to the Royal Academy where the world’s most famous political artist has installed a show which is a devastating critique of life in modern China.

Ai Weiwei recycled wood from temples destroyed by the industrial revolution to make exquisite sculptures. In 2008, an earthquake destroyed shoddily built schools in Sichuan, killing 5,000 children. He collected the substandard steel and made it into a sculpture, which says more than 100 placards ever could. When the authorities wrecked his new studio – before he had even occupied it – he turned the butchered timber and bricks into art. This powerful exhibition reveals some unpleasant truths about the mindset of Mr Osborne’s new business partners.