“Brexit is an opportunity to reverse the tragic decline of marriage in Britain”
So read the headline of an article in The Telegraph on Monday written by former High Court judge and chairman of the Marriage Foundation Sir Paul Coleridge.
Before I read the article I thought that any link between Brexit and marriage was pretty unlikely, but I was sufficiently intrigued to read on, despite my misgivings concerning Sir Paul’s motives. Having read the article the best I can say about Sir Paul’s theory is that it is extremely tenuous, although a more realistic appraisal would say that it was a complete non-sequitur.
So what exactly is Sir Paul’s argument?
Well, as best I understand it Sir Paul argues that Brexit will herald a return to self-reliance “as our country retakes control of its destiny”. This, in turn, will mean that the individual will look less to the State for support, and more to the family and the community. And that will lead to “an increase in the rate of the serious commitment of marriage and a reduction in family breakdown”.
Where to start?
As to self-reliance Sir Paul complains that:
“The generous welfare system did nothing to discourage family breakdown and it became economically possible for a woman to support children without financial support from herself or a husband.”
How is Brexit going to change this (assuming it is a bad thing)? The welfare system may be under threat, but that is due to economic constraints rather than Brexit. Taking ‘control’ from Brussels will of itself make little or no difference.
But even if people are to be more self-reliant (the idea conjures up in my mind images of some post-apocalyptic world, but we’ll gloss over that), does that mean that they will flock back to the institution of marriage? My answer would be: why should it? People in this brave new world may be more reliant on those around them, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will marry the people they rely upon.
And as someone pointed out on Twitter, the whole idea that poorer couples will stay together due to lack of state of state support if separate would hardly be something to cheer about if it were true. If their relationships were that fragile then perhaps it might be best for any children if they were to separate.
And all of this of course presupposes that the decline in marriage is, indeed, a tragedy (in fact, marriage rates have increased a little in several recent years, but Sir Paul is harking back to the ‘golden days’ of the 1960s, before either the rates plunged or this country shackled itself to the EU). Sir Paul laments what he calls “the endless river of human misery unleashed by the collapse of the nuclear family since the 1970s” and talks of “the vital importance of marriage as one of the most powerful forces for good in society”, but those are generalisations. The only specific point he makes is that “children brought up in a stable relationship by both parents do markedly better throughout their lives on every measure of successful development”.
What Sir Paul conveniently forgets is the misery caused by unhappy couples being forced to remain together due to the difficulty in getting divorced prior to the divorce reforms of the late 1960s. He also omits to mention that society’s expectation in the ‘good old days’ that people should marry for life irrespective of whether they were suited to do so caused endless misery in the first place.
And as for the suggestion that children do better because their parents are married, that was debunked long ago. As I explained in this post back in 2014, research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that children born to married parents do, indeed, “achieve better cognitive and social outcomes, on average, than children born into other family forms, including cohabiting unions”. However, the research indicated that this is simply due to the fact that more affluent and better educated couples were more likely to get married – the Institute found “little or no evidence that marriage itself has any effect on children’s social or cognitive development”.
So to summarise: the decline in marriage is hardly ‘tragic’, and even if it is, to suggest that it will be reversed by Brexit is wishful thinking in the extreme.