Harry Benson is Director of Communications for the Marriage Foundation.
It’s not the way I would have done it. It won’t persuade couples to marry. It doesn’t counter the “couple penalty” that pays thousands more if you live apart. It will pile yet more debt on the taxpayer. It’s poorly targeted. And it further complicates the tax system.
Nor will the Prime Minister’s own reasons convince many. It brings us into line with Europe. It fulfils a promise he made rather a long time ago. So what? That’s just political game playing.
And yet you can hold your head high about the new tax break for married couples. You may face the wrath of the Today programme interview or the Question Time audience. But you need not fear. Your case is strong. Here’s why.
This tax allowance is the first clear policy in support of marriage for a generation. It’s a flag in the ground. A statement of intent. Be proud of it.
The real disgrace is that we have turned our backs on marriage for far too long. It has cost us dear. In the last thirty years, family breakdown has doubled, from a million lone parent families in 1980 to two million today. The bill to the taxpayer for picking up the pieces exceeds the defence budget. And it will keep on rising.
Divorce is in no way responsible. In fact, divorce rates are now falling. Nor has there been a collapse in income or education, or any other background factor known to influence relationships.
The only major social change that can possibly account for the rise in family breakdown is the trend away from marriage. The equation is a simple one. Unmarried couples are more likely to split up. Fewer marriages inevitably means more family breakdown.
Backing marriage does not in any way conflict with backing lone parents. We all have friends who are lone parents. They carry all of the roles and responsibilities of two parent families but only one pair of hands with which to manage. It is entirely right that we should support them financially through the state. Just as important, they deserve our love and support socially as friends and neighbours. I take my own responsibility seriously. I hope you do too.
So much of this epidemic of breakdown might have been avoidable had we not been so relaxed about the importance of marriage. If we are to turn the tide, we need to regain confidence in marriage as a society.
As families and friends, we should not be asking why couples bother to get married. We should be asking why on earth they don’t! How else can you be really sure about commitment?
Fascinating new research shows that living together and having a baby tell us little about whether unmarried couples will still be together just a year or two later. Yet taking out a joint mortgage, a gym membership, or getting a pet are all predictors of stability. The key ingredients of commitment are decisions about the future as a couple. It’s called dedication.
The ultimate step of dedication is to invite somebody to spend the rest of your lives together. It clarifies intent. It removes ambiguity. It sets out a plan for the future. And it involves a decision.
When we make decisions, when we agree to do something, we are much more likely to stick at it, get the most out of it, and put up with little niggles. We will prioritise, sacrifice and forgive, all because everything that now happens does so within the context of the future. That’s true of how we see our jobs, our hobbies and where we live. It’s also true of relationships.
It is undoubtedly possible to sustain commitment without making a clear decision about the future. Yet remarkably few unmarried couples manage it successfully. In the UK today, of every 100 teenagers still living with both parents, 93 will have parents who are married. Where are all these “long term stable relationships”?
We need to stop conning ourselves that reliable love and commitment exist just as much outside of marriage as within; it’s simply not true. Success outside of marriage is the exception. Marriage matters.
A small tax break from government will never be enough. It can only be the beginning. It’s a flag in the ground. Change starts here. We all need to regain confidence in marriage. We need to tell our children that getting married stacks the odds in their favour because it clarifies their plan for the future. Not marrying stacks the odds against.
But if this first policy in a generation encourages us all to be more confident about marriage, and if it helps politicians finally to catch up with what research has been telling us for years and human nature has been saying for millennia, then there is real hope that we could see the tide turn, families strengthen and breakdown reduce.
Talk to us at Marriage Foundation.