On the Palace Pier in Brighton, in East Sussex's finest amusement arcade, there is a game, which I have played only once, but which has gripped my ability to form metaphor so completely that I think I must write it down in an effort to exorcise its hold. In the game, you are the holder of a hammer. On a board in front of you are perhaps a dozen holes, out of which, and in random order, protrude animatronic heads fashioned into simulacra of a common garden rodent. Your task in the game is to bash the heads of the "rodents" with the hammer, as soon as possible after they emerge from their lair, in order to prevent them from taking over your "garden". If you pride yourself on a phlegmatic approach to life, it can be a little disconcerting to find yourself, 45 seconds into the game, banging at the board with a frenzy which in most other circumstances would lead to an ambulance journey and a nice dark room.
Well. Life may not always imitate art; but it seems that politics may often imitate pier-end amusement arcade games. Because back in the news, again, is a proposal about which I'm quite sure I've written here at boring length in the past: the Law Society is again campaigning to give property rights to cohabiting couples, as though those couples were married. Worse, our party spokesman, Henry Bellingham, first of all welcomed these proposals, though David Cameron has stepped in and apparently ruled this out. Good.
Let us not fool ourselves that there is no political agenda operating here. Thoughtful people on the left have noticed that their language around family is poor (all that 'hard working families' stuff, rather than rhetoric about 'the family') and they are making a concerted effort to refashion the institution to mean - well - anything. As it happens, I am (mostly) with them. It would be ironic (code for: disgraceful) for me to insist on a definition of family which precluded anything other than a heterosexual, married couple. But this liberating expansion of 'family' need not - should not - undermine the definition of marriage, which is a legal contract of obligation between consenting adults, to signal their lifelong commitment to one another. Such a state cannot be entered into by chance (under the Law Society proposals, you would go to bed with your live-in partner one year and 364 days into your relationship, and wake up the next morning to find that you owed one another property rights, without doing anything other than continue to exist as you had chosen to exist before). To be married cannot be induced by external considerations, and nor can it be willed into existence by external actors: it must always be the free choice of the two people involved.
Oh but what about the children? What indeed. All men are (legally, as well as morally) responsible for children that they father, regardless of the marital status in which they existed at the time of conception. So this is a red herring.
Government should concentrate on nudging and encouraging couples who wish to have children to marry. This is a good framework for raising children, and provides good legal cover for women and children in the event of a relationship breakdown. No heterosexual couple is barried from this institution so there are no fairness issues to consider. But similarly, no adult should be coerced into finding themselves married by default: adults in partnerships have the right to arrange their domestic, sexual and parenting responsibilities as they both wish.
I said I had this memory that I've written about this before. A quick google reveals that I discussed it here first in 2007 and before that in 2006. This endless campaign by the Law Society truly is the bouncing rodent head from the pier-end of politics. I think the Law Society would do better to turn their attention to reform which is most definitely required: the treatment of men, and access to their children, in divorce cases, for example. If the Law Society wants to right an institutionalised injustice, I think making sure that good fathers can see their children after a divorce would be a pretty good place to start.