A few weeks ago a senior judge was helping to inaugurate an organisation designed to protect and promote the institution of marriage. Judge Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Judge. There was a full spread on it in the Times, with articles which, as usual, were incredibly superficial.
One article was looking at the divorce statistics and then postulating on the basis of little more than anecdotal conjecture about the effect of recession on divorce. Another appeared to say that the judge was bemoaning the increase in divorce amongst the elderly, and once again reaching sweeping conclusions on the basis of statistics which did not justify any such conclusions.
Marriage and the family in this country is a real political hot potato.
David Cameron supports the institution of marriage, but very tentatively, because of the implied denigration of couples living together outside marriage and of single parents.
Ed Milliband, although he denied it, considered it a requirement of becoming Leader of the Opposition to alter his status from that of being a long term and committed cohabitant to a husband.
Iain Duncan Smith in his programme of welfare reform has shown statistically that the future for children is very much dependent on their upbringing. Most successful, by far, will be the children of married parents; then children brought up by couples who are living together but not married; hen single parents -- and lagging far behind, with shamefully and incredibly awful results, those children taken into care.
So – what is the purpose of marriage? There is so much facile debate which does not address this question. Why, in 21st century
, is marriage still perceived to be a “good thing” by the State. Britain
Why do almost all societies have marriage or something akin to it? What does it show about our society that that system has been breaking down. Has the State contributed to that disintegration? Is it right for the State to try to re-establish it?
What is the purpose of marriage?
In many societies marriage has been one corner of a triangle between the family, the State and religion. It is rather like the balancing of powers between the government, the elected representatives of the people and the judiciary. In a fully functional and stable society the religion will support the State and the family; the State will support the established religion and the family. And the family will support the State and the established religion.
For many years in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance the Catholic Church was able to impose suzerainty over both the State and the family. That power was reflected in the Church’s teachings that the purpose of marriage and the family was the procreation of children (children who the Catholic church could then indoctrinate).
That monolithic absolutism ended with the dissenters, and in particular Luther.
Since that time there has always been a tension between the Church and the State, which during periods of stability has resulted in establishmentarianism ie the locking together of the Church and the State, in many cases with the State being the more powerful.
A prosperous State and a contented Church depends on the stability of the populace and that is best served through cultural and religious conformity reflected through the institution of marriage and the family reinforcing the values of the State/Church. This stability is certainly reflected in English society for hundreds of years, reaching its apogee in late Victorian and Edwardian England.
Most civilisations which metamorphise into Empires are based on moral certainty. Such was the
British Empire. Men in their early 20’s controlled vast swathes of land because of the moral certainty they brought to bear.
Where are we now?
This country’s confidence was lost in the years of austerity after the Second World War. American money fuelled the phoenix like resurgence of
Germany and Japan, while was as grey and polluted with pessimism as its fog. Britain
Then, in the 50’s, immigration began. First West Indians, later Indians, Pakistanis and other ex colonial citizens and then finally the East Europeans.
People are divided. Some will say it has resulted in an erosion of English values. Others will say that before this
was insular, narrow minded and xenophobic and that the waves of immigration have resulted in a more pluralistic, more tolerant and more cultured society. England
The Church of England has really lost all authority to be called the established church. It will only be a matter of years before it is disestablished. In multicultural
it is an institution which, while well intended, has made itself almost irrelevant through its conservatism. It is a place where the posh and the respectable bourgeoisie get hatched (Christenings), matched (marriages) and despatched (funerals). To many notional Anglicans it is a vestigial appendage. Britain
So, if we are going to find a reason for promoting marriage it is not, within the English mainstream, going to be religious. Religious marriage remains very important however for many of those from the Indian subcontinent, those of West Indian extraction and sections of
Eastern Europe. The same applies for relatively smaller ethnic groups, such as Christian Africans and South Americans.
Cohabitation vs Marriage
There are some sensitive areas where politicians dare not go, but none so more than the family.
For 101 reasons we have created a society where all the commitment to a stable family relationship has been eroded. That would be the subject matter of another article.
However, we do know that the best outcome for children is within marriage. It is certainly arguable that in part that is due to the nature of those couples who choose to get married --- they are likely to come from a defined cultural background, secure, with the ideal of the family as part of a culturally stable society.
Even if we removed that factor though we are still left with the basic tenet of marriage – and that is commitment to make the relationship last, a commitment which is made to society and to the State.
That commitment is based on two pillars. The first is that marriage is for the long term, and most marriages will be buffeted by the vicissitudes of life. Secondly, for many it will be partnership committed to the fostering of the major resource of our country, our children.
It is my belief that that commitment should be rewarded by the State. Marriage as a vehicle to bring up children should be promoted.
There are ample statistics to show that the success of children is directly proportional to the stability of their family relationship. Indeed, the evidence is pretty dramatic.
It is also known that (and I do not like using this sort of statistic because it is so complicated) the average marriage will last twice as long as the average cohabitation.
When one takes into account 2nd, 3rd or even 5th marriages and divorces amongst the grey dreamers the average length of marriages with couples with children compared to those who are living together will be significantly greater than double.
There are a multitude of reasons why a person is a single parent. Many of them, usually women, are strong and do their best. But it is not ideal.
In the West Indian community the values are such that single parenting in endemic and the effect on the children is reflected in this. Compare that with the three racial/religious groups with the strongest family bonds – the Indians, Chinese and the Jews – the differences are dramatic.
For single parents there will almost always be money problems. They want another partner but are required to declare their cards before that becomes stable. Sometimes, even if the partner is working, the loss of benefit will significantly outweigh any financial benefit brought in by the other partner.
So we have created a world of single parents leading clandestine lives in the shadows. Ducking and weaving. Being financially penalised for trying to enter into permanent relationships.
The State is having to legislate in a country which has lost many its shared values. There is no accepted value structure or even any idea of what it is to be British.
There is the diminishing community of what were the ordinary English people (going to Church, having a roast on Sunday, being kind and accepting the fairness of authority).
There are spectra. There are those who are deeply committed to the family and marriage, such as Jews, Indians and Chinese. There are those for whom such values have almost completely disappeared, such as sections of the white working class and the West Indian community.
In a civilised society, with a low birth and infant mortality rate, the fate of its children should be its deepest moral imperative. One unfortunate aspect of British society today is how the selfishness of adults and their belief in their right to pursue their selfish goals has resulted in a betrayal of our children. The collapse of any universally accepted value structure has resulted in a society of adults hell bent on self actualisation and fulfilment of selfish goals. On a macro level this is destructive of society
One example is rural Nimbyism. A couple in their late 40’s to early 60’s, having earned their crust, will move into their ideal Olde Worlde village. Any change will be resisted with venom. There will be muttered utterances about the destruction of the English countryside and the fabric of our society.
The effect of this selfish desire to preserve the countryside in aspic (and to maximise the valuer of the nimbies properties) has been no jobs for the young, no starter homes for the young, unemployment, disillusionment and the takeover by the attractive parts of the country by the selfish middle aged and elderly.
I think it is one of the most shameful features of the ordinary middle aged English person that they are so incredibly selfish.
If we are to promote the institution of marriage, children must be at the centre of this. If we bring children into this world then it is an obligation to give them the freedom to breathe but the chance to discover their potential, and if they choose to do so , to maximise it.
I do not know whether Justice Coleridge was misreported but it was suggested that he was saying that the rising divorce rate was largely caused by those in later years choosing to get divorced after many years of marriage.
This particular aspect of the section in the Times made me think the most.
First of all, there will be those who believe deeply in marriage and who are inveterate optimists, but who may be flawed, who get married for a second time, or third time or more. Why should their “triumph of hope over experience” be used as a sign of the the decline in the institution of marriage itself – it is actually a sort of affirmation.
The second point was that, disregarding the serial marriers, there were those who were divorcing after the children had left home.
Once again Justice Colerige might have been misreported. Barristers and judges lead isolated lives. So many people (particularly but not necessarily women) lead family lives centred around their children. The father may be bullying, authoritarian, isolated. Anyway, the family unit slowly morphs into one where the mother’s life is centred round the children. The relationship between mother and father as husband and wife withers and slowly dies. The children leave home. The parents look at each other across the living room and ask themselves what is left of their relationship apart from their departed children.
If either of them leave, either having met somebody else or daring to go it on their own, what possible concern can it be of the State. Child bearing and child supporting functions have come to an end. It is sad, but it is a personal grief which should not be considered by as appropriate for intervention by the State.
Two tier marriage
People get married for different reasons. For most, there is a strong element of commitment. However, a clear distinction can be drawn between those who have children and those who do not.
Whether or not a child is the natural child of both parents, a marriage where children are involved should, in my opinion, be more difficult to dissolve than one where there are no children. And once children are born, then the requirements to bring the marriage to an end should be more onerous.
That is the stick. But the carrot promoting marriage by tax incentives, housing incentives and mortgage preferment should also be implemented.
The role of the State should be restricted. It should encourage the institution of marriage as a way of creating the petri dish which is most like to produce a culture which is aimed at providing children with the best possible start in life.
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