On addressing the Oxford Union

Relationships|February 15th 2011

It would be fair to say that the past week has been an eventful one – not least because on Thursday, I addressed the Oxford Union. I had been invited to debate before the house, speaking in favour of the motion, “This House believes that marriage is an outdated institution”.

Oxford Union debates are always popular; I was honoured to receive the invitation, and delighted to accept it. Other speakers in proposition included Joanne Edwards of Manches and Ella Robertson, a talented student from Balliol College. Sadly and predictably, our motion fell, but it was quite an evening. The speakers in opposition included the journalist Catherine Blyth, author Adele Parks and Harry Benson of the Centre for Social Justice. Arriving at the Oxford Union, walking up the crunchy gravel path, I glanced through a window to my left and saw Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, speaking to some of the students. Had it been his son Hugo, whose columns I read every week in The Times, I would most certainly have joined in!

Before the debate I was welcomed by graduate Pippa Neal, who organised the debate (flawlessly, I might add) and kindly given the Union’s Morris Room for my own use. Then it was onto drinks, photographs and dinner around an impressive, horseshoe-shaped dinner table. I was seated at the top, between Oxford Union President James Langman and Miles Coates, a student and political officer of the Conservative Association who was opposing the motion. After signing the book, the debate took place in the imposing debating chamber, next to the Union. It looks very much like Parliament, no doubt intentionally, nurturing as it does future politicians. The chamber was packed, upstairs and downstairs. The debate was preceded by the procession of Union officers and the speakers to their seats, accompanied by applause and cheers. You couldn’t help but relax and smile at such a welcoming audience.

The debate lasted for two hours, all conducted with good humour and very keen brains and flair, especially amongst the students. I was sitting next to Niall Gallagher, a graduate and high flying investment manager, who spoke in favour before me.  As Adele Parks waxed lyrical about all the sex you have when married, he jumped up with a “point of information”.

“It’s quality, not quantity”, he said to roars of laughter from the audience! I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in politics.

Afterwards there was a very welcome and relaxing reception.

For me, it was a surreal and entirely fabulous experience. The best way I can describe it is that it outdid anything in a Harry Potter novel. All around the Oxford Union building hung photographs of famous people who had taken part in the debates. I felt deeply privileged to be taking part in one such debate. And as you may discern from the fabulous wallpaper (above), the Morris Room is named after William Morris. By concidence, Morris was my maiden name, so it seemed doubly fitting!

My husband Grahame came with me to inspire confidence. He did a great job. It did seem ironic, speaking in favour of the motion when I was the longest-married speaker there! My argument was that the institution of marriage had been stripped of its value and significance by family law reform.

As for the institution of marriage: I have copied my notes below, and will leave you to decide…

Marriage. Is it truly “magic glue”? Or are wedding rings now regarded as “the smallest handcuffs in the world”?

To begin, let me tell you a little about my own background and experience of the institution of marriage.

I went to university at a time when many women worked only until they got married at about age 20. Then they stopped to give up work once the “family breeding programme” was under way.

Me? I decided to become a lawyer.

For the past 30 years I have represented an average of some 300 clients a year; I have worked with thousands of divorcing men and women, across the entire social spectrum, in this country and across the world. During this time there have been significant changes in our society. Most of all, changes to how we value marriage and how we define families.

We have moved light years from the traditional 1960s family. What is a traditional family nowadays? The composition of family has altered to such an extent that it has dramatically overshadowed the role and public perception of marriage. Nowadays, family practitioners, lawyers, judges, counsellors, therapists, social workers, all deal with ‘families’ not marriage, in family law. A family might consist of a childless couple, gay or straight. A family might consist of a single parent or two parents of one two or more children. There could easily be three or even four “parents”: step-parents, adoptive parents or surrogate parents, biological parents and non-biological parents, gay parents, straight parents or grandparents who are acting in loco parentis. There are mindboggling permutations of what a “family” means today, and it is nothing to do with marriage. No-one who works with families in crisis defines a family by virtue of a marriage certificate.

Tonight you have been told about the importance of marriage and its magic, glue-like qualities. You have heard about the psychological value of the marital bond. I don’t dispute any of it.  But being happy within marriage is a different argument. Nobody should ever be denied the right to marry if they wish, provided it is lawful to do so. Our debate tonight is completely different and we mustn’t get sidetracked. Is the institution of marriage outdated?

As a family practitioner I think – albeit sadly and with regret, because I know firsthand of its benefits – that it is.

You have been told that the collapse of cohabiting relationships, rather than the collapse of marriages, is to blame for the rise of family breakdown in this country. You have heard that, far from being outdated, marriage remains the “gold standard”; that in fact, family life will be strengthened if the importance of marriage is successfully reasserted.

However the facts speak for themselves. In the 16 to 44 age group, there are now more couples cohabiting than there are married couples. Various reasons have been proposed for this decline, and you have heard some of them tonight. You must make up your own minds.

But as a family lawyer, I know of one very good reason why.

Take for example, the new Leader of the Opposition. Not so long ago, an unmarried man could not hope to become an MP. Yet here we have a happily cohabiting, non-married father of two – and who knows, a future Prime Minister of this country – who recently said of his live-in barrister partner and the mother of his two children: “She’s not my wife…Thank God for that”.

It is because of the differing perception of what marriage now means to a man and a woman that marriage is set to continue its slide into obsolescence.

Let me explain!

The family law blog that I write prompts regular comments and emails from men of all ages and occupations.  Some of these men clearly believe that our family law is biased towards women to such a degree that, as one wrote recently, getting married is no longer a “viable option”.

To quote another: “It’s just not worth it”.

Marriage used to be a good investment for a man. His wife would cook his meals, clean the house, do the shopping, produce all his children and look after them, too. If his marriage failed, he would have to dip into his assets – but he would only have to hand over a few morsels. It was a win-win.

Women rarely pushed for divorce not because they revered the institution of marriage, but because they couldn’t afford the consequences thereafter.

Maintenance payments were small and hard won; matrimonial property division did not favour the wife. The lowest point surely was Dart v Dart in 1996, when the wife was awarded less than one-fortieth of a £400 million fortune – and was also made to pay her husband’s costs.

But by then, the tide had already turned. More women were going to work. Fewer women were financially dependent upon their husbands. Women could control the ‘’breeding programme.”

And as women became self-sufficient, more wives left their husbands. In the landmark divorce case White v White in 2000, judges were thereafter instructed to divide the matrimonial assets equally. Sharing? A starting point of 50/50?
Not likely!

The repercussions of that ruling are heavily felt by the wealthier party, usually the man, today. If a marriage breaks down, a “poor” husband can stand to lose most of his capital and up to half his income. A rich husband now has the equal sharing principle to contend with. He stands to lose millions to a wife who has never worked, who stayed at home and raised the children – something conventional 50 years ago, but in the post-White age, such a woman is now styled a “gold digger”.

In my experience breadwinners, most of whom are men, abhor these new rules. It is no coincidence that as the marriage rate declines, cohabitation, which comes without the legal strings, is soaring in popularity.

And how ironic that marriage is regarded as “old fashioned” when it is currently cohabitation, the supposedly modern alternative, which harks back to an earlier age.  There is no sharing and no reasonable needs to be met if a long term relationship breaks down.

Thus marriage, a patriarchal institution that no longer favours men, has slowly but surely, been rendered void of its value and significance. This is by virtue of current law, which governs it, the customs practiced within it and the lure of cohabitation, which remains unregulated by law. Although I was a member  of the Legal Advisory Group to the Law Commission, which recommended increased legal rights for cohabitees, so far the calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Instead there have been moves to restore the institution of marriage to its original status, at least in part. There are calls to invest a gargantuan £30 million into “relationship education”, and calls to “incentivise” marriage by restoring tax breaks for married couples, although these had no discernible effect when they existed previously. Then there are calls to legalise prenuptial agreements, to put “gold diggers” back into their deserved financial straitjackets. All to save marriage. But whatever the moralisers try and do, it is too late. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

Why trouble to marry, if it comes to deciding whether to walk away scot-free, or walk away financially decimated? It’s a no brainer, isn’t it? As yet another male reader wrote on my blog: “Fewer people will get married as the divorce courts lack credibility”. Case proved?

Marriage is no longer a “magic glue”. In the 21st Century it has finally come unstuck.


The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. herve says:

    loving the dress

  2. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Well done you!!!

  3. ObiterJ says:

    Firstly, many congratulations on being invited to this debate. What a marvellous experience it must have been.

    Secondly, it is interesting that government is reportedly going to alter the law to allow same sex marriage and opposite sex civil partnership. Thus we will see same sex pre-nups etc. Will look forward to seeing any comments you offer on that as and when the specific proposals emerge.

    The modern view of the family is very much the product of human rights law as it has developed under the “living instrument” doctrine. Provided the judges do not lead but follow society close behind this doctrine seems to me to be beneficial and it has been in family law.

  4. Marilyn Stowe says:

    It was. And I will be delighted to do so. Many thanks for your kind words and above all your insight which is much appreciated.

  5. Martin says:

    I think ObiterJ’s comment are a very good summary of the current situation; that the Judges have been following society with regards to family law. But I do disagree with him (or her) in that I thik that it should be leading instead.

    The Catholic Church is a massively successful organisation with many members and it does not follow society, but leads it and is the stronger for doing so. Following is weak, and smacks of old people trying to be cool. Old judges should listen to their experiences rather than enlightened younger people who would lead towards anarchy.

    Specifically I thus hope we don’t have pre nups and that the CSA is abolished. Other than that I think that the human embriology act should be amended so that babies should be conceived with a male and female parental figure. Plus gays and straights should be allowed to marry or have a civil partnership.

  6. ObiterJ says:

    Good comments Martin if I may say so but one could have an Oxford Union debate on the role of the judiciary. In our common law system we used to pretend that the judges did not make law. That myth (“the declaratory theory”) hardly holds sway today and certainly does not do so in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights which has been viewed as a “living instrument.” Having said this, Judges really have to be careful. In sensitive areas – (and a lot of family law is “sensitive”) – they follow society because to do otherwise would usurp the role of the legislature. When the latter fails to act then there may be a need for the judges to assist by way of interpretation.

    The great religions of the world exist to expound their beliefs and they have an existential need to lead and to persuade others to join them. Therein could be yet another Union debate on the links between law and religion.

  7. LCM says:

    Gorgeous dress Marilyn!

  8. Martin says:

    ObiterJ. Now we’re talking. Such a debate would be interesting.

    I don’t trust society to make the laws, hench rise in Sharia law. We should have more leadership than that. Leave it to society and we end up with lynch mobs like in Portsmouth lynching paediatricians and people they don’t like and hangings, etc. etc. I am beginning to repeat myself though.

    I think I’ll just say that without the leadership (we agree on that point, there being a lack of leadership by Government or Judiciary) then there will be trouble. I’d rather be led than make my own laws. I think hence the move to Sharia and Jewish courts etc. I don’t believe in lynch mobs.

  9. Marilyn Stowe says:

    I’m having to go out to the US shortly. Hoping I will get to wear it again at least in the evening…. Perhaps its inappropriate for Court!

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