The census showed a disturbing trend away from the institution

Since I wrote my blog on Monday, about the Coalition’s proposed legislation to redefine marriage, the subject has still been dominating the newspaper headlines. The Guardian today has, “Ukip plans to derail PM over gay marriage”, while the Telegraph has, “Britain has fallen out of love with marriage.” This latter headline conveys a deeper and more critical aspect of this debate: the general decline in marriage. The 2011 Census reveals that the number of married people has now fallen to 20.4 million, nearly 200,000 less than a decade ago. At the last Census married people composed just over half the population. Now they comprise 45%. The Telegraph comments that “this is the first time since the census was founded in 1801 that married couples have been in the minority.”

According to Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge who has co-founded the Marriage Foundation campaign group to promote marriage, this must be regarded as “a worrying development and is all part of the picture which a few weeks ago revealed 50% of children aged 15 were not living with their birth parents.” I would use the word “frightening” of this development rather than “worrying”. Marriage as an institution has always provided the essential stability necessary to raise children, which is the hardest and most responsible task anyone can undertake. When marriages break up, and co-habitation increases – as the 2011 Census shows – it is always children who suffer most from the consequences.

I was talking to a friend the other day. In her early 70s, a history graduate and a lifelong Tory voter, she says she will not be voting for the Tories at the next General Election. Her reason: David Cameron’s determination to change the official definition of marriage. How many Conservative voters up and down the country plan to do the same? The Guardian thinks many will be drawn to Ukip, which is no longer regarded as extremist and which doesn’t care if the Tory modernisers regard it as the new “nasty Party”. Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, has told the Guardian that he believes David Cameron’s proposal “has the potential to rip apart the traditional rural Tory vote. While Ukip wholly respects the rights of gay people to have civil partnerships, we feel the prime minister’s proposals will present an affront to millions of people in this country for whom this will be the final straw.”He added, “The division between city and rural is absolutely huge.”

By “division” Farage means that between the metropolitan middle classes and the Tory rank and file in the country generally. This latter group feels entirely ignored and overruled by the Coalition on this matter. Just as the Rochdale housewife Gillian Duffy was rudely dismissed by Gordon Brown as “a bigot” during the last General Election, when she raised her reasonable concerns about the scale of immigration in this country during recent years, ordinary Tory voters like my friend feel they are being similarly dismissed as “bigots” by the Party grandees over the same-sex marriage question.

In a feature article in the Telegraph this week Iain Martin asks the question of Cameron, “Does he not care who he’s losing?” It appears not. Martin suggests that Cameron and his advisers have concluded that “parties who look like the past are defeated and those that are in touch with some nebulous notion of the future tend to win.” They forget that conservatism is not about being a Colonel Blimp writing “Disgusted from Tonbridge Wells” in the letters columns of newspapers. That is merely an amusing caricature. Classic Conservatism grasps that what has been recognised as valuable, enduring and enriching over many generations needs to be “conserved” for the common good of succeeding generations. The defence of marriage should be seen in this light and not as an attack on people of same-sex orientation or as a reproach to co-habiting couples.

My friend whose allegiance to the Tory Party is now at an end talked to me about her own parents’ relationship. It seems her mother suffered from a severe mental illness throughout the marriage, later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. “How did your father cope?” I asked her. “Well, he loved her and he was stoical. She needed looking after. To walk away from the difficulties would have been unthinkable.” Her comment illustrates the gulf between a previous generation’s idea of marriage and today. No longer seen as a lifelong commitment, no longer necessarily including children, no longer prepared to shoulder unforeseen burdens, it is regarded by many people as a (possibly transient) romantic partnership. No wonder its meaning and definition are under attack. Is it already too late, not only to save marriage as it has always been understood, but to encourage it so that the next Census will show a reversal of the current trend?