Commentary Magazine


Troth Blighted in Old Blighty

In a story out of Great Britain today we read that the proportion of Britons getting married is now the lowest since records began in 1862, with the number of weddings held in 2006 the smallest since 1895, when the population was little more than half its present level.

The figures, from the Office for National Statistics, show that fewer than ten in every 1,000 single adults in England and Wales got married in 2006. Among men the rate was 22.8 in every 1,000, while among women the rate was 20.5 in every 1,000. When marriage-rates were first calculated in 1862, the level was 58.7 in every 1,000 for men and 50 in every 1,000 for women. Even during World War II, the article says, marriage rates for women never dropped below 40 in 1,000 (they fell below 30 for the first time in 1995). The general decline of marriage has been under way since 1972 when marriage rates were more than 78 in 1,000 for men and 60 in 1,000 for women. Also of note: today religious marriages in Great Britain number fewer than 80,000, compared to 157,490 civil weddings.

There is, as one might imagine, a political and policy component to this story. According to the article,

[t]he evidence that marriage is withering away at an increasing pace was met with a furious response from critics of Labour’s benefits system, which disregards the status of husbands and wives and pays parents extra to stay single. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis claimed the Government had “fuelled family breakdown” and researcher Patricia Morgan, who coined the phrase “marriage lite” to describe cohabitation, said Labour had succeeded in “eradicating” marriage. “This is what they have tried to achieve and they should be congratulating themselves,” she added. “But it is a disaster for children, families and society.”

. . . [T]he tax and benefit system came under most fervent attack. Advantages for married couples have gradually been withdrawn, joint taxation-ended in the 1980s and Gordon Brown withdrew the last tax break for couples, the Married Couples Allowance, shortly after Labour came to power in 1997 . . .

. . . Labour family policy has for a decade maintained that all kinds of families are equally valuable and ministers have campaigned for all references to marriage to be removed from state documents. The Tories promised they would provide incentives for couples to get and stay together. David Davis said: “This is a sad indictment of the Government’s policies which have penalised families and fuelled family breakdown. Stable families are the best formula for bringing up children and preventing delinquency, anti-social behaviour and crime. So a failed family policy is itself a major cause of crime.” He added: “Conservative policies will support the family by shifting the tax burden away from families and giving 1.8million families an extra £2,000 a year.” Researcher and author Mrs Morgan said: “I have been reading the Children’s Plan put out by Children’s Secretary Ed Balls last year. It does not mention marriage once. This Government has removed the idea of marriage from research and public documents and from the tax and benefit system.”

These developments are part of a broad, on-going trend. In his book on marriage The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Collapse of the American Family (2001)*, Bill Bennett reminds us that in 2000, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he has seen in his forty-year political career. He answered, “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” He said that this transformation had occurred in “an historical instant. Something that was not imaginable forty years ago has happened.” The distinguished historian Lawrence Stone wrote, “The scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent and seems unique.” And the demographer Kingsley Davis added, “At no time in history, with the possible exception of Imperial Rome, has the institution of marriage been more problematic than it is today.” Scholars now speak of a trend toward a “post-marriage” society.

The causes of the collapse of marriage range from the rise in the Western world of a highly individualistic ethic, to a profound shift in moral and religious attitudes, to the sexual revolution, to the widespread use of abortion and the pill, to changes in law, among other things. The precise damage that the collapse in marriage is having on different societies is hard to measure – but we know it cannot be good. Marriage remains the best arrangement ever devised when it comes to sexual and emotional intimacy, raising children, and finding fulfillment and completeness between two people, not to mention things like financial security, better health, and longer lives. It is, as Bennett wrote, “the keystone in the arch of civilization.” It is also, for those of us who are people of faith, an honorable estate, instituted by God.

Revivifying marriage will not be an easy task, and it will depend on much more than government policies. But laws matter a great deal, as we have learned any number of times on any number of issues (among them welfare and crime) – and they surely matter when it comes to marriage. Laws, after all, reflect a society’s attitudes – the things we deem to be worthy of our support and disapprobation.

Great Britain is now experiencing the consequences of having devalued marriage in law, and the Tories are right to advocate steps to fortify traditional marriage. There are few institutions more in need of repair and few issues that are more worthy of our attention.

* Full disclosure: I assisted Bill Bennett in writing the book.

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