● Marriage is the way society regulates baby-making – a liberal way of ensuring more children grow up in a stable family
● Marriage is becoming a middle-class phenomenon, further exacerbating inequality
● We have successively abolished the economic and legal structures which support marriage; we can replace these with new ones
I have argued (Proposition 5) that to strengthen the nation we need a new constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom, and (Proposition 9) that to strengthen communities we need a new legal commitment to ‘community power’. In this final post I suggest we need a new commitment to the legal form at the heart of most families: marriage.
This apparently outdated institution is nevertheless the essential component of a virtuous society. If society is a web or net, marriages are the knots that hold it together. Without it the ropes tangle up and slide apart, and society’s most vulnerable people – children, old people, the unwell and lonely – fall through the gaps.
What is the purpose of marriage? The benefits of companionship and financial security, and of support for the most vulnerable, are secondary to its main purpose, from which indeed these benefits derive. Marriage represents the regulation of baby-making. It is, or was, the framework of legal and social permissions in which children are created and, crucially, brought up. It is, or was, a means of tying men into family life, for their own good and that of women and children. It is not, or was not, a mere confirmation of romantic attachment.
Procreation is a matter of public interest – even though the business of procreation is, we all agree, a private affair. How to reconcile this tension? Marriage is the answer. By offering legal privileges, social status and financial assistance to couples who commit to staying together and staying faithful, we indirectly, and without interfering in anyone’s life, regulate the having and upbringing of children.
No successful society in history has practised an unregulated sexual free-for-all. This very obviously degenerates into a bonanza for selfish, laddish men, who exploit the license to take the pleasures of sex without the responsibilities. In every successful society, the explicit deal is that sex comes with commitment.
Not every marriage produces children, and certainly not all children of married couples are brought up safely or happily. But politics must generalise, and all evidence and common sense tells us that the more marriages that happen and endure, the better for all of us. The institution of marriage – the vows, the legal privileges and the culture around it – is a strong nudge towards virtue.
There remains among middle class society a vestigial idea that to be married is to be grown-up and responsible, and one of the crowd. This somewhat empty rationale helps explain why marriage is not more deliberately promoted in politics and the media, despite the great majority of politicians and journalists being married themselves. The other reason for our cultural silence is that the public discourse is infected with, or scared of, the second-wave feminist belief that traditional family forms are oppressive towards women. So as Charles Murray says, the elite decline to ‘preach what they practice’, and have allowed the steady destruction of an institution that, more than any other, helps poorer families survive and thrive.
In the last generation governments have successively dismantled the legal and fiscal structures which supported the institution of marriage. First we removed its economic basis by deciding to tax people as individuals rather than as couples (in Nigel Lawson’s 1990 reforms). Then we removed its physical basis by abolishing sex as an expected component of marriage (in the 2013 Equal Marriage Act). Most recently we have removed its emotional and practical basis, and voided the marriage vow itself, by enabling either spouse to terminate a marriage at will, without the consent of their partner or evidence of irretrievable breakdown (through the 2020 Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act).
These steps are probably irreversible. But there is much that could be done to shore up marriage from without, even if its internal structures have been removed. Most people want to get married, and this can be encouraged through more generous treatment in the tax and benefit system and through stronger official approbations of marriage.