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Feeding the machine

December 22, 2009

It’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll get a Conservative government at the next general election, whether Gordon Brown calls it early or leaves it till the last minute. And so, with the smell of government already, as it were, in their nostrils, the Tories are starting to make noises about their own ideas for the country as opposed to just reflexively objecting to Labour’s.

Today’s idea is a return to their traditional obsession with other people’s relationships, as reported in this Guardian article. The Rt Hon David Willetts, shadow cabinet spokesman for the family, gave the interview. There’s honestly nothing very new in it in terms of policy suggestions or attitudes – as with much Tory policy on the family it boils down to 1) children need a traditional nuclear family and 2) it is therefore a good idea to pay parents to stay together. (It’s telling how often the article writers use “insisted that …” to preface this sort of statement.)

I’m going to pass over my objections to this attitude in one sentence, because I want to get on to something else, but for the sake of having them out there: regardless of what family model functions best under perfect conditions, in the by definition imperfect conditions where a parental couple can no longer stand one another (break-ups being painful for all involved; Tory proposals on the family often seem to forget that the parents are also independent individuals with feelings) an extra £20 a week will not make them make up – following on from which, simple common sense dictates that children (indeed, anyone) will do better in an environment that is not constantly riven by arguments, disagreement or abuse.

Now that’s over with, I want to get on with looking at what struck me as really interesting about Mr Willetts’ various pronouncements, which was this: he says two things that I agree with. And frankly this is a very strange feeling, even given that in both cases I’m approaching them from the opposite direction, as it were. I obviously don’t know to what extent his precise phrasing represents the views of the Tory High Command, but when it comes to dealing with professional conservatives it’s rare and oddly heartwarming to see someone merely putting the wrong interpretation on a point as opposed to missing it altogether.

Firstly, this:

The aspiration of marriage is becoming harder to achieve. Instead of it becoming just what you do in your 20s, it has become like scaling Mount Everest, a sort of great moral endeavour – and something that requires a lot of time and money.

He’s right; fewer people are marrying, and fewer of those who do are marrying young. It’s becoming a generally more serious business, socially and economically. And Willetts . . . thinks this is bad.

This is bizarre enough to make me wonder whether Willetts really believes what he’s saying. Surely a party that places such great and often-emphasised value on the institution of marriage as the Conservative Party shouldn’t be treating it as “just what you do in your 20s”? Altogether too many people do treat it as just the Done Thing, have second thoughts, and get divorced. The divorce rate would be a ton lower if the only people who got married were the ones who’d really, seriously thought about it first.

It’s established fact that divorce, no matter how amiable it may be, is expensive and stressful, as things that involve rearranging your life, moving house and talking to lawyers so often are. Like abortion, it’s something nobody does for its own sake. The Tories are adamant in their insistence that it is a Bad Thing. So why, in an interview laying out their plans to reform the family system, are they actively championing a thoughtless, casual attitude to marriage that will lead directly to rising rates of divorce?

That’s the first half of the quote. Now for the second. He describes marriage as “like scaling Mount Everest, a sort of great moral endeavour”? That’s more on message: I think most people would agree that declaring a lifelong commitment to someone, and then sticking to it, requires a lot of courage, a lot of nerve, and absolute trust in the person holding the other end of the rope, as it were. Yet Willetts’ next sentence is not “… And we approve”, but “We think we need to ease some of the pressures”.

You saw it here first, people: the official opinion of the Conservative party is that, when considering marriage, great effort, great commitment and a constant eye on the morality of one’s actions are not appropriate.

It strikes me as dishonest in the extreme for the Tories to, on one side, place marriage on a pedestal as a lasting, foundational institution, the bedrock of society, and then in the same breath suggest that people should enter into it without thinking and without appreciating the moral significance of the commitment they’re making.

You can’t hold up something as inherently solemn and sacred whilst simultaneously encouraging people to join in indiscriminately. It’d be like a cleric declaring religious worship the mainstay of a healthy society and then saying that everyone should come to church because they’ll get biscuits. You can’t have it both ways.

The sheer size of the contradiction here is baffling: why on earth would anyone actively encourage the devaluing of an institution to which they attach great importance? There’s no sensible reason. I want to leave that line of thought there for a moment, and turn to the second thing Willetts said that I kind of agree with:

“Any society in which something as massive as this institution of marriage with a deep history, with roots in its culture, with public recognition, where it didn’t affect behaviour would be very odd indeed.”

It’s unarguably true that an institution as societally entrenched in a culture as marriage is in the Western world has incredibly far-reaching effects on said culture. And in the case of the Western world that effect would seem mostly to have been screwing people up. This is an institution that for centuries told women that they are inferior, people of colour that they are Other, and gay people that they don’t exist. That has functioned as a system of alliance-building and property-distribution between families, with little to no regard for the feelings of the people in them. That has been used to hold together loveless partnerships at the expense of the children whose parents loathe one another. That has been exploited by the Church, the state and economic entities to make sure that the mechanisms of the patriarchy function. The one set of people who actually benefit from the system are upper-class white men in power.

From that point of view, suddenly the Tories’ continued contradictory party line on marriage makes a lot more sense. Obviously they have to try and sell marriage on its virtues, because otherwise nobody would do it, but in practice they want as many people in the system as possible because it’s a system that benefits them.

They aren’t pro-marriage, or pro-family; just pro-Tory. No surprises there.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. wickedday permalink
    December 23, 2009 1:31 pm

    Addenda and corrigenda to the conclusion, which in the cold light of dawn early afternoon seems rather more incoherent than it did:

    Either 1) I’m being too cynical, and the Conservative Party really have no idea what they think on this issue – it’s just a matter of reflexively going “Marriage good, divorce bad! O noes!” and failing to observe the contradictions this creates. Which makes them woefully stupid, if not wilfully blind, but less malicious than described above.

    Or 2) I’m not, and it really is this unpleasant. It’s fairly well known that the Conservative Party are still stuck in about 1832 in many respects, and this proposed legislation smacks of wanting to return to that time. They evidently want to reverse the ongoing cultural shift away from marriage-for-all. However that cultural shift has, generally speaking, been one towards equality and away from prejudice: away from racism, away from homophobia and away from misogyny.

    Despite the best efforts of the marriage equality movement, in most people’s heads it’s still One Man and One Woman. And even while the law has taken away a lot of the misogyny that used to be part and parcel of marriage, the social pressure is still there:

    – Marriage affects your job prospects: married women are less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired (than single women) while the reverse holds for men.

    – The wedding industry is marketed almost unilaterally at women, with phrases like “the happiest day of your life” being thrown around like there’s no tomorrow (so if marriage is “what you do in your 20s”, the ensuing ~60 years are all downhill? Oh yay). Being a bride is held up as the pinnacle of a woman’s life achievement. It’s also expected, still, that she change her name and subsume her identity to her husband’s. (50% of America thinks it should be required by law. Think about that for a moment.)

    – Too often, marriage is regarded as a contract whereby the woman is given financial security in return for sexual favours. There are plenty of jokes knocking around about the sexless marital wasteland, and they always put the blame on the woman. There’s also the charming little belief, still held here and there, that the marriage license somewhere includes a declaration of permanent consent. Marital rape wasn’t recognised in law as existing until 1991.

    – Marriage is for the purpose of children. The loving long-term commitment that the term signifies in my head, at least, is almost entirely absent from Willetts’ statement. It’s children this, children that. Children are still seen as almost totally the woman’s responsibility: biology dictates this for the first nine months and a bit, yes, but after that it’s still regarded as her part to quit her job, her part to feed and clean them, her part to look after them if the couple breaks up – and in the latter case, you lose both ways: single mothers are stigmatised, but women who happily admit that the father might do a better job at parenting are regarded as unnatural, not-sufficiently-real women.

    When the Conservatives are spouting this sort of contradictory rhetoric it’s very hard to believe that there isn’t malice in it. If marriage is so solemn and wonderful, why aren’t you letting serious, committed gay couples in on the act? If marriage is so solemn and wonderful, why are you encouraging people to do it thoughtlessly? If marriage is just “what you do in your 20s”, why is it so solemn and wonderful?

    Thankfully, most of the misogynist attitudes listed above are dying, if slowly. But that’s dying, not dead. The Tory line, emphasising the traditionality of marriage (obligatory: slavery is also very traditional) smacks very hard of a desire to return to, or at least continue to enforce, the worst parts of marriage.

    The good bits – the love, the commitment, the awesome craziness of declaring to the world that two become one – are ignored as irrelevant or, worse, demeaned.

  2. December 27, 2009 10:28 pm

    The fundamental problem with the Tories on the issue of marriage, is that they will penalise people who are divorced, single, gay, co-habitees or simply not bothered about marriage.

    To place incentives/financial inducements to people’s relationships…as if given the rulers blessing, is actually demeaning to the very institution of marriage. What David Willetts is actually doing….and the fool doesn’t even know it…is that he is putting a cancer within the institution of marriage.

    Marriage is meant to be about commitment and love of two people who in law and before god….express that they are married.
    The State should not be a part of it….because it is the business of the individuals involved.

    However…giving cash to married couples…whilst a single-parent struggles to make ends meet…because the partner has “pissed off”…isso unfair.
    We must remember (and it wasn’t widely reported), that Cameron got a torrid time by Gingerbread members, who quite rightly accused him and his Party of making single-parents second-class citizens.

    Come the election – I hope that Labour will be going off to the sink estates…urging them…if you dont want to be treated as a 2nd class citizen – then you’ll be voting Labour.

  3. Adrian permalink
    January 1, 2010 5:01 am

    There’s also a financial reward for fathers who spend more time taking care of their kids than the mothers do. Do mothers ever get a reward for doing more than the fathers in this regard? Nooo. (grinds teeth)


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