"A modern Conservative Party should support marriage. We should use the law, the tax and benefits system, and other mechanisms to encourage families to get together and stay together."
- David Cameron, speaking at a Policy Exchange meeting in June 2005
I have to admit that, as a conservative (small c) political party, such an approach makes sense. However, it does seem to contradict the views of those of a more libertarian bent. You see, such a stance smacks of social engineering, of persuading individuals to behave in a manner that is not necessarily in their best interest in the long-term.
As a liberal, I believe in freedom, within certain limits, of course. I don't believe that the State has the right to tell me how to live my life, or how I should arrange my personal affairs. Yet, if a bribe to heterosexual couples is the best that might be on offer, what impact do they expect that to have?
Firstly, one has to accept that £200 per annum is not going to sway many people. As Rosemary Bennett notes in today's Times, a tax break of £1,000 would cost about £5 billion annually. Under the current circmstances, that isn't going to happen.
Secondly, data indicates that 70% of people actively want to get married, and only a minute proportion believe marriage to be an old-fashioned notion. So, there are very few people to be swayed.
Indeed, David Cameron has indicated that any tax break will be available to those in civil partnerships. So just how will that support marriage?
Society has become more complex. Increased access to divorce and abortion, improvements in contraception, all of these have made marriage a rather more fragile institution. Easier divorce laws mean that there are some who enter into marriage knowing that, if it all goes wrong, they can exit without stigma and, if both parties behave reasonably, much inconvenience. The notion that marriage is therefore no longer 'til death do us part' means that you don't necessarily have to look for Mr or Ms Right.
Access to abortion, something which has given women greater freedom (although not without personal cost), means that pregnancy does not oblige women to marry the father, in the way that it once did, likewise with improvements in contraception, which prevent such pregnancies in the first place.
Turning back the clock in these aspects of modern life is always going to be difficult. Yes, you could make divorce more difficult. The cost would be in those unhappy homes where children are raised in an atmosphere of tension, with the resultant impact on their educational and emotional development. You would also have to deal with a likely increase in spousal abuse. I don't think that Conservatives believe that these are good outcomes, and they come with their own costs too.
Tighten up the abortion laws? The time limit has been reduced, but most people would be happier to reduce abortion levels through better sex education, improved access to contraception and so on. Besides, how would this support marriage?
No, the answer is not to stick a finger in the dyke in defence of the nuclear family. Better to support those who wish to raise their children well, to support and nurture them, to have aspirations for them, regardless of how they choose, or are obliged, to order their personal affairs. Reduce the number of unwanted children by encouraging behaviour that will prevent their conception, and provide the support that will allow children the best opportunities that we can provide through health reforms and investment in education.
If the Conservatives want to really fix our allegedly broken nation, returning society to the moral straightjacket it was once in is not the way forward. Talking about supporting people to take control over their own lives, about freedom, they might even persuade Liberal Democrats as to their sincerity...