It’s all so outdated, now the research shows how much more stable marriage is than cohabitation

Oh dear. Here we go again, with the notion (believed, I fear, by many if not most people – and certainly by most Lib Dems) that “traditional” marriage is just one form of the family among many, and that it is no better and no worse than any other.

After his gaffe in at first endorsing Mr Cameron’s (as it turned out extremely popular) veto of the ramshackle scheme to prop up the euro, Nick Clegg now has to rebuild his relationship with his party, it seems: so he is resorting to the tactic (apparently sanctioned by the Tories as a means of preserving the coalition) of having a go at some Cameron policy to show he isn’t just his lapdog. Well, how about marriage, he must have thought. Some months ago, Mr Cameron said he believed in it, in these ringing words: “I am pro-commitment, I back marriage and I think it’s a wonderfully precious institution.” (He did go on to say he believed in gay marriage as well, but naturally those Tories who back him in his policy to give tax concessions to married couples think they can put a stop to that one – and they probably can, so maybe he didn’t really mean it, fingers crossed).

Anyway, the following, apparently, is what Clegg will say some time today. He may already have said it:

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We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the Fifties model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, home-making mother, and try to preserve it in aspic… We can all agree that strong relationships between parents are important but not agree that the state should use the tax system to encourage a particular family form.

Note the sneering tone of that: the idea that the one-earner family with the wife at home caring for the children (which, even now, surveys have shown most women would prefer as an option) was a uniquely middle-class white collar family form. It wasn’t, of course. Working-class families were just as “traditional” in this sense: and the universal belief that the family, thus understood, was a powerful force for social stability was reflected in the fact that under governments of both Left and Right a man with two children, who was the family’s only earner, began paying tax only when he was earning the average national wage. And I do not see how, with the benefit of an extremely bitter hindsight, any moderately sensible person could fail to agree that if it had been possible to preserve that – whether in aspic or anything else – it would have been an outcome devoutly to be wished.

It couldn’t happen, of course, for all kinds of probably unavoidable political reasons. And now we are saddled with the outcome, inter alia with Clegg sneering at the 1950s “version of the family institution”, as though what we now have – mostly cohabitation without what is sneeringly described as “a piece of paper” (marriage) – as being preferable, or at least, just as good.

The trouble with people who think they’re so in tune with the here and now is that they are so often just out of date: it’s a bit like people who think that what young people want is guitars and folk Masses, when the up to date thing is actually monstrances and Eucharistic adoration. So far as family policy is concerned, cohabitation is now clearly understood (as Cameron has shown he understands) to be a major source of social instability. It is, in particular, a disaster for the children involved. Children need stability: that means above all else a mother and father who stay together. The evidence has been studied exhaustively by such major sociologists as Patricia Morgan, whose groundbreaking book Marriage-Lite: The Rise of Cohabitation and its Consequences was published, a decade ago, by Civitas, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society and is now available as a free download here.

I was struck by the following passage (but if you are seriously interested in this vital subject you should read the whole book):

When we hear of cohabitations being “stable unions”, this usually refers to ones producing children, and this is assumed to be evidenced by couples registering the birth from the same address. However, less than one in 10 British women having their first child in cohabitation are still cohabiting 10 years on, or only 8.7 per cent. Just over a third would have married by five years and two-fifths by 10 years, but a half will be lone unmarried mothers because their relationships have dissolved. The low overall proportion of mothers who are cohabiting at any one time, compared with the large numbers of women who enter such relationships, is the result of the short duration of cohabitations…

Cohabitations which produce children are unions which are more likely to dissolve eventually, compared to childless cohabitations, because when a woman becomes a mother, this actually reduces the chances of her marrying the father. The odds of marriage (relative to not marrying) for women who had their youngest child within cohabitation are 67 per cent lower than for childless women in the British Household Panel Study. While cohabitations with children have a slightly lower dissolution rate than those of childless women, ultimately more of these unions dissolve compared to those of childless women, simply because less are converted into marriage…. “childbearing within cohabiting unions does not signal longer-term commitments” even if it does “signal longer cohabitations”.

Some politicians (including, it seems, Mr Cameron) have kept up with the latest research on the subject: others, very much including Clegg and the Lib Dems, have just carried on spouting the old “liberal” certainties. But that’s what you’d expect. The Lib Dems, of course, are the only political party whose official policies include support for that other old Jenkinsite cause, abortion on demand: enough said about them.

I just wish it were possible (it isn’t) for David Cameron to call a snap election. He would win it; the Lib Dems would go under to an electoral disaster which would destroy them as a national political force for a generation; Labour would lose so badly that Ed Miliband would have to resign, thus opening the way to the election of his brother David. An improvement all round. We might get proper support for the married family and one or two other desirable policies not possible with the Lib Dems in coalition; and we would also get a Labour party capable of forming a credible opposition. Wouldn’t all that be better? We won’t get it: but at least we all know, if we didn’t before, just where we are with Mr Clegg.

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