Feeding the machine
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.
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.