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Paul Vallely: Marriage is more than a lifestyle choice

13 December 2006

It is the business of wider society and Government

It would be a pretty rum family where the father carved the chicken, held up its leg, and asked: “What am I bid for this delicious piece of meat?” The family is one of the few areas of modern life in which the market does not prevail. Different values obtain. So it is paradoxical that the family is seen as a bulwark against social disintegration in the report by the Conservative Party’s Social Justice Policy Group, which was published this week.

The document painted a grim picture of an entrenched underclass inhabiting a nether world of crime, drugs, alcohol addiction, spiralling debt, and a lack of achievement from which they cannot break free. The collapse of the family was seen as a central problem.

The Labour Party tried to dismiss the analysis as a re-run of the Tories’ disastrous Back to Basics policy. But it had difficulties. The key facts set out in the report were startling. One out of every two cohabiting couples split up before their child is five; in contrast, the figure among married couples is only one in 12. Children from single-parent families were far more likely to play truant from school, be taken into care, fail their exams, become drug addicts, or end up in prison.

But let’s unpack some assumptions here. First, how do we know there is a causal link? Is it not possible that both family breakdown and socially inadequate behaviour are symptoms of something else? Might it be, for example, that individuals who are rooted and responsible are the ones inclined to marriage, whereas those who cohabit are more self-focused or less committed? It might be something other than the institution of marriage that explains the stark differences.

What is the family for? Traditionally, it’s been a mechanism to regulate sexual behaviour, assign roles in a division of labour, and order inheritance and wealth. St Augustine gave a theological undergirding to that. In modern times, there have been significant shifts of nuance. Romantics have added a dimension that finds its logical conclusion in the serial marriages of those like Zsa Zsa Gabor, who value it only so long as it preserves the thrill of the first flush of romance.

Feminists have altered notions of sexuality and of gender power. And the Thatcherite elevation of the market to a status that nothing could trump has brought to marriage a contractual ethic, in which either party may terminate the deal at any point.

But a stable family does much more. It contradicts the market ethic with its love. It selflessly supports its members in their roles in the external economy. It shares responsibility for children. It socialises the next generation. These are non-market social functions, which is apt, since it is left to society to pick up the pieces of broken homes. The family is the business of wider society, which is why we marry with our friends and relations as witnesses.

The family is more than a contractual arrangement. It is a kind of covenant, to which wider society is also a party. The Government is wrong to insist that marriage is a mere lifestyle choice. If politicians can insist that we wear seat belts — for our own safety, and to cut the cost of accidents to the NHS — it is surely legitimate for them to create tax incentives to improve social outcomes. The real question is: will that work? Or do we need something much harder to legislate for, such as a shift in personal values?

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