Marriage or its absence has suddenly become very topical:
- According to National Statistics data reported in the Guardian in 2009 46% of babies in England & Wales were born to unmarried parents.
- The Guardian also reports that rate of marriage is the lowest it has ever been. Last Friday's "Women's Hour" discussed the problems of cohabitation breakdown with partners not having the legal rights that spouses have.
- Paul Goodman has written about the problem of religious young people, especially in the Muslim community, who are not bothering with a civil wedding.
- Meanwhile, many gay people in civil partnerships consider that the state is offering them a “second class” relationship compared with marriage. Lynne Featherstone MP has announced that next year the Government will consult on whether same sex partners should be allowed to enter into civil marriages like heterosexuals. This could ignore the same type of “culture war” that plagues the USA and was discussed in Radio 4's "Sunday" programme.
Why is there a problem?
Whenever you use the same word for two distinct concepts, you create problems.
- Many years ago, I went to a registry office and became legally married to Tahara.
- That same afternoon, at her parents’ home we had a Muslim wedding ceremony.
The civil wedding conferred some tax benefits (married man’s allowance still existed then!), gave inheritance rights in the event of intestacy, was relevant for state pensions etc. The religious wedding meant that it would not be a sin for us to have sex. My wife and I are in two distinct relationships, a civil one and a religious one; calling both relationships “marriage” confuses the majority of Britons who are not experts in law or theology.
Our country does not criminalise pre-marital or extra-marital sex, and any combination of adult men and women can live together and have children without state interference provided none of the relationships is incestuous. Despite eliminating religious issues from sexual relations, the state only offers one type of legal relationship to heterosexual couples, namely marriage, which brings with it all of the baggage of its religious origins.
I believe the religious baggage is the reason so many Britons (including Ed Miliband MP until he became Labour Party leader) avoid getting married, despite having children together. In my view the residual association of civil weddings with Christianity is also the reason so many Muslims have a religious wedding but decide to skip a civil wedding.
What we should do
The state should offer only one type of legal relationship to couples, a civil partnership, with each individual only capable of being in one civil partnership at a time. This should apply regardless of gender.
While it may seem harsh, I would keep a set of exclusions whereby certain family relationships (e.g. siblings or parent and child) precluded the possibility of a civil partnership. Otherwise the scope for avoidance of inheritance tax becomes too great.
The legal process for entering into a civil partnership should be as simple and as cheap as possible. If the couple want a celebration event with an audience, they can go elsewhere; organising parties is not the role of the state!
The benefits from change
- It would immediately eliminate the second class status of civil partnerships as perceived now by gay people.
- It would put an end to arguments about polygamy and polyandry. Every citizen, regardless of religion, could only enter into one civil partnership. How many other men or women they wish to have sexual relations with, and the words they use to describe their relationship, are both personal matters for them and no concern of the state. That is no different from the current legal position regarding concurrent multiple sexual relationships, but the change in terminology would help to take the heat out of polygamy and polyandry.
- It would enable a simple and clear marketing message by the state to people entering into relationships. “If you live with someone without a civil partnership, you lose the following benefits……” This message would carry no religious or historical baggage. It would be a much easier sell to those people, including some Muslims, who avoid civil marriage almost as an act of protest.
- Page 41 of the Conservative Party manifesto 2010 talked about recognising marriage within the tax system. This would be much easier to do if the “moralising” implications of the word “marriage” were eliminated.
Fundamentally, it is not the role of the state to tell people how they should live their lives from a religious viewpoint by pressing or bribing them to get married. Even though we currently use the word “marriage” to describe both religious relationships and civil relationships, everyone knows that the origin of the word is a religious one.
However the state has every interest in encouraging people who live together, especially if they have children, to enter into legal relationships that are clearly defined in terms of rights and responsibilities. It is entirely legitimate for the state to give tax and other financial benefits to citizens who are in such relationships if the state considers that to be for the good of society. In today’s Britain it is much easier for the state to promote such a legal relationship if it comes with no historical or religious baggage, i.e. a civil partnership.
David Cameron has talked many times about the breakdown of the family in Britain. It is well established that parents who are legally married stay together on average twice as long as parents who are not married. The Conservative Muslim Forum statement on the recent rioting stressed the need to get values back into the home and school. As explained above the Government can promote civil partnerships far more vigorously than it can promote marriage.