What is it about politicians and marriage? As a profession
parliamentarians have their fair share of affairs, divorces and
re-marriages. No doubt the working conditions contribute to this.
Long hours of intensive labour spent hundreds of miles from home
are not conducive to marital bliss.
Yet despite working in an environment which should make them
understand the intolerable strains that can be placed on any
relationship, senior politicians of all parties have adopted an
ideological approach to the institution of marriage. The latest
example is the approach of the UK government and Scottish executive
to civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples.
On this issue a liberal line is being taken – albeit under pressure
from the European Court of Justice – and recognition of long-term
partnerships, and the consequent property and pension rights, will
soon be enshrined in law.
But such a progressive approach is not being extended to
heterosexual couples living together. Men and women who choose to
live together can expect no rights to be extended to them by either
Scottish or UK ministers. Hugh Henry, deputy minister for justice
in the Scottish executive, summed up the argument against change
recently. Defending a decision not to extend civil partnerships to
heterosexual couples he said: “That would provide an alternative to
marriage and it’s not our intention to do that. We believe that
providing an alternative to marriage would have the same effect as
undermining it.” Why on earth do ministers believe that it is
anything to do with them whether people marry or not? They will
claim that marriage is better for children, that cohabiting
relationships are more likely to break down than marriages.
However, the research underpinning these assertions is flawed and
cannot bear such ideological interpretation. Putting aside the
fundamentally patriarchal nature of marriage the real flaw of
ministers’ position is that it is a denial of reality. More and
more people are choosing to live together and to have children
outside wedlock. Many of them falsely believe that they have the
protection of a “common-law” marriage. But they do not, and when
relationships break down parents, and children, find themselves
suffering financial distress on top of emotional turmoil. When
society is changing it is the responsibility of politicians to
understand that change and to reflect it in legislation. The
government claims to want the best possible context for bringing up
children. If that is so then the challenge is to legislate a
framework of rights and responsibilities fit for purpose rather
than to lecture parents about the benefits of an old-fashioned
institution they have chosen not to join.
John McTernan is a political analyst.