The Times

November 19 2000

The anti-marriage fanatics won't see why children fail

Melaine Phillips
The Sunday Times

Round three, and not yet out. Behind the scenes in Whitehall, a battle has been raging over marriage. In the nuptial corner are Jack Straw, Paul Boateng and David Blunkett. Opposing them is the feminist hard core made up of Baroness Jay, Harriet Harman and sundry women junior ministers.

They've been slugging it out for months over whether a white paper should say that marriage is the best option for raising children. Now the prime minister, stepping in to break up the fight, has sided with the sisterhood. No more white paper; instead a downgraded report which won't say marriage is best but that children can be brought up successfully in other types of family.

How amazing that these women are going to such lengths to prevent the m-word from even being mentioned in policy. What are they so frightened of? The answer is that despite the prime minister's retreat, the argument for promoting marriage is far from lost. On the contrary, the intellectual case is gaining ground by the week.

The really striking fact is that this row is still going on in Whitehall. We were told that promoting marriage was the deadest of dead ducks within about a year of this government taking office, following yet another raging battle between the usual ministerial suspects. And yet here they are again, still at it.

The argument for promoting marriage is extraordinarily tenacious. And that's because it's based on solid evidence which won't go away.

The simple fact increasingly troubling government is the enormous and escalating cost to the country of family disintegration. It's adding billions of pounds to the pressures on housing, social security, healthcare, the criminal justice system. And it is storing up even more costs; increasingly solitary lifestyles and the reluctance to form permanent relationships will destroy the networks of kinship which caused generations to look after not just their children but their elderly parents, too.

So the argument by Harman and others that the government shouldn't be telling people how to live is completely off-beam. A responsible government should surely tell people the truth. "We all know that it is better for children to grow up in a secure relationship but that doesn't mean the couple has to be married," said one unnamed minister. Wrong; that's exactly what it does mean. Cohabitations break down much more frequently than marriages and also make subsequent marriages unstable.

Only 36% of children born to cohabiting parents are still looked after by both parents - even if they eventually marry - by the time the children are 16, compared with 70% of children born to married couples.

Generally speaking, children suffer permanent disadvantage if their parents aren't together while they grow up. Of course some such children emerge relatively unscathed; but to tell the public that other types of family are just as successful for children as married parents is simply a lie.

Ministers delude themselves if they imagine they can have a value-neutral family policy. Pushing this doctrine of family equivalence makes it more likely that more families will fragment. It makes marriage increasingly meaningless, thus closing it off as an option for those who really do want security and the best outcomes for themselves and their children.

Far from protecting freedom, it is actually a direct assault on marriage and thus on people's freedom to enjoy its benefits. Indeed, value-neutrality has imposed a financial penalty on marriage for years, with Gordon Brown's so-called childcare strategy now loading the dice against marriage even more.

Marriage is a unique institution in which the state has a stake, because if marriages fail the state has to pick up the pieces. Value-neutral family policy means expecting the taxpayer to foot the bill for behaviour that may be ignorant or unwise, such as elective lone parenthood or cohabitation. This government is constantly telling people to live more responsibly - not to smoke, not to get pregnant in teenage years, not to be idle, not to let children truant. Yet when it comes to marriage, it gets a fit of the vapours.

The anti-marriage lobby claims that promoting marriage would stigmatise the children of unmarried parents. Well, children whose parents are convicted of crime feel stigmatised. Does anyone suggest that therefore criminal offences should be abolished?

The real misery for children in fragmented families is that they are fatherless. Often, their most powerful wish is never to do to their own children what has been done to them. Yet if nobody tells them why marriage is so important, and why it's in the best interests of everyone, they will indeed do the same to their own children.

But even politicians who understand all this are deeply nervous of another back-to-basics fiasco. So many of them, after all, lead irregular lives. This terror of being outed as a hypocrite has turned into policy paralysis. And anyway, it's surely bizarre to feel unable to advocate a policy which would benefit society and obliged instead to encourage behaviour that adds to the stock of human misery.

Does that mean that divorced or gay ministers must fall on their swords? Not at all. David Blunkett, for example, is divorced and yet he would be an ideal person to promote marriage since he well appreciates the misfortune of fragmented family life and why it is best avoided. But Robin Cook, who betrayed his first wife while in office, should have stepped down because his behaviour made his character an issue.

It all depends how ministers behave while in office. Like it or not, they set an example. Why shouldn't ministers be expected to behave more responsibly once they are in a leadership position? They are role models. Those who are cohabiting, for instance, should get married, because otherwise they set a bad example to people who are not similarly cushioned by wealth or power and for whom cohabitation often spells personal disaster. It is astonishing to stand this on its head and argue that because ministers cohabit, they must promote cohabitation as equal to marriage regardless of its adverse consequences.

What politicians and other leaders of society say and how they behave are cultural signals that are crucial in moulding the values of a society. The fundamental reason why family life is falling apart is the collapse of those cultural norms which once told people it was wrong to bring up children without their fathers.

The problem is that our social policy establishment is now dominated by anti-marriage fanatics. When Blunkett was attempting to broker a compromise on section 28 by drafting guidance which told teachers to promote marriage, he had to fight a ferocious running Whitehall battle to keep the reference in - even though it was so qualified as to be all but neutered.

The reason for such extremism is that the anti-marriage brigade feel the ground slipping away beneath them. They may temporarily be winning the political argument, but they have lost the intellectual one.

Now this case should be made to the people. But that takes leadership. Say no more.

Melanie Phillips

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.