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The social and cultural gap opening up over marriage

I’m a strong supporter of recognising marriage in the tax system.  Tim made the case for the policy on this site last week, and I’ve nothing to add to the arguments he put.  I want, instead, to write about selling the policy, rather than the ideals behind it.

Consider some figures:

  • In 1991, 74 per cent of over-16s in England and Wales had been married.  By 2008, this had fallen to 65 per cent.
  • In 1991, 58 per cent of people were currently married.  By 2008, this had fallen to 48 per cent.
  • In 1991, 70 per cent of children were born to married couples.  By 2008 this had fallen to 55 per cent.

These Office of National Statistics figures suggest a simple picture of less marriage, more cohabitation and more births outside marriage – especially among younger people (The ONS has found that the proportion of single women aged 18 to 49 who were cohabiting rose from 18 per cent in 1979 to 35 per cent by 2001).

But hang on a moment.  The picture’s more complex.

  • Yes, roughly 45 per cent of marriages ended in divorce in 2005 - up from 34 per cent in 1979.  However, it’s worth noting that some of these marriages were of course re-marriages.  I haven’t found a reliable figure for how many divorcees re-marry, although one estimate is as high as 50 per cent.
  • So if 45 per cent of all marriages end in divorce, what proportion of first marriages end in divorce?  Again, I haven’t found a firm figure, though one estimate comes in as low as 15 per cent.  The ONS estimates that the breakdown rate for second marriages is around 61 per cent compared to 41 per cent for all marriages.
  • ONS figures confirm that the longer a couple have been married, the lower the likelihood of divorce.  Fewer than 31 per cent of marriages that survive for a decade will end in divorce, and only 15 per cent of those married for 20 years or more end up divorcing.

Obviously, these figures are selective, but considered with others they suggest three points.

  1. There is indeed a trend to less marriage, more cohabitation and more births outside marriage among younger voters.  We know from polling and results that such voters are less likely to vote Conservative than older ones.
  2. However, a large number of people who are eligible to marry do so, and a significant percentage of divorcees re-marry.
  3. Of those who marry, a big proportion either stay married or, after divorce, re-marry.  Those who stay married for long periods of time will eventually become older voters.  We know from polling and results that on the whole they’re more likely to vote Conservative than younger ones.

In conclusion, a social and cultural gap seems to be opening up over marriage.  On the one side are those who stay married: they’re generally older and better off.  On the other are those who co-habit: they’re generally younger and poorer.  The Centre for Social Justice quotes British Household Survey figures which imply that this difference is irrelevant in political terms – since 70 per cent of adults support marriage and 90 per cent of young people want to get married.

I’m not so sure this is right.  Voters feel understandably protective about their families.  They can all too easily hear politicians’ abstract pronouncements on social structures as concrete criticisms of their own lives.  The history of the 1990s suggests that this is particularly hazardous terrain, and politicians are even less popular now than they were then.  Furthermore, voters who co-habit or who’ve divorced are less likely to vote for us than married ones – and are potential supporters we need to win.

The last polling I saw on the matter – a ComRes survey from December – found 46 per cent of those surveyed supporting tax breaks for marriage, with the same percentage opposed.  This finding may point to the cultural and social gap I sketch out above.  There could also be a gender gap.  ComRes found 55 per cent of men in support of such tax breaks, and only 39 per cent of women.  One shouldn’t make too much of one poll.  (Mind you, a Populus poll in the Times earlier this week found 57 per cent of voters opposed.)

If “the politics of and” come in anywhere, don’t they come in here?  Earlier this week, David Cameron set out proposals to reform Sure Start.  As Tim has written, “Conservatives aren't one club golfers when it comes to family policy”. 

We’ve plans to end the couple penalty in the benefits system, provide more health visitors for new parents, invest in relationship education services, reconnect grandparents with children, and consider a cooling off period in divorce proceedings. 

This second leg of our family policy is just as important as the first.  It follows that it should be presented no less vigorously.  We should bang on pre-election, again and again, about “our offer to married couples and all families”.

Paul Goodman

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