Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Conservatives and marriage

When there used to be a married man's allowance, I was married. When the government scrapped them, I got divorced. Coincidence? Of course is is. No-one makes these sorts of decisions on the basis of a personal tax assessment and as Tom Hamilton has pointed out, it would be slightly odd if they did.

And the Conservatives' decision to make the family a political issue is really odd for two reasons.

One is, as practically everyone has pointed out, whatever one thinks of the diagnosis, the cure simply won't work. The financial cost of divorce is so great, any fiscal regime that made it even more undesirable would have be both extravagant and draconian to a degree that would not be merely undesirable - it would be impossible. Unless, that is, they are prepared to countenance no tax at all for the married, combined with a system where a team from the Inland Revenue come round to your bed-sit and steal what little furniture you have left. Even then, I doubt it would work.

Because poverty does not cause divorce. I'm not just extrapolating from my own experience here. The divorce rate is higher in wealthier countries. Part of this is economic, but not in the way the Tories think. We get divorced because we can. It is, I can testify, financially painful - but not unbearable, still less unfeasible. Polly Toynbee inadvertently provides evidence for this because while she complains that the Tories have confused cause and effect, she then refers to the experience of Denmark, which she rightly says has the lowest level of child poverty in the EU. But doesn't the fact that it also has the same level of single-parent families as us rather undermine her 'cause and effect' point?

Any fair EU comparison would also show that it is the predominately Catholic members, which are generally also the poorest, that have lower divorce rates than the predominately Protestant ones. We get divorced, not only because we can afford to financially, but also because historically it has been easier both legally and socially to do so.

Which brings me to the other odd thing about this latest foray by the Tories into the realm of 'family values'. Given the embarrassment of John "Edwina Currie shagging" Major's ill-starred 'back to basics' campaign, why have the Tories come out with this now? Chris wonders whether they aren't pandering to their own supporters by dressing up handouts to their own as concern for the most needy in society. Possibly, but I doubt it. The truth is the Conservatives have identified a genuine social problem that has consequences that are fairly easily demonstrated. Polly Toynbee's solution is to go for the Denmark option, which - as I'm sure she is well-aware - would involve a massive expansion in the provision of nursery education. This would overcome the single most important obstacle to single-parents returning to work, the means by which they can overcome poverty.

But old age and my own experience - both professional and personal - is making me more conservative (as well as more hypocritical, given my circumstances), so I doubt whether this is the answer. People in my position tend to get very defensive about this sort of thing. When it is women, justifiably so - given the disgraceful attacks we have seen from the Tories in the past on single-mothers.

But I'm persuaded nonetheless that family breakdown is an externality that needs a more careful response than the usual recourse to the old categories. People of my generation grew up with the feminist critique of the institution of marriage. It wasn't that none of this was justified, it's just that I don't think it occurred to many people at the time that this could be balanced by similar critique of divorce. But now that the results are in, so to speak, I think it should be.

The Tories edge towards this with a focus on the responsibility of fathers. A welcome change, in as far as it goes. But fundamentally they don't have the solution either. I'd suggest the reason they've come out with this gumph about tax-breaks is because they clearly lack the courage, ability, confidence, sheer pig-headedness, or whatever it takes, to make a proper conservative argument like this one and have fallen instead for the notion that families, like everything else in society, can be controlled and moulded into a pleasing shape by the state. As if this was a condition that has hitherto failed to materialise only for want of finding the correct combination of fiscal levers to pull.

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