Thanks in large part to a damning referendum result and swift change of government, British conservatism appears to have been offered an escape route out of muted, liberal imprisonment. It has been a long while, and ecstatic though I am that patriotic conservatism is once again firmly on the agenda, I remain hesitant over what exactly it will entail. One thing we should all hope for, however, is a restoration of the institution of marriage, so long the victim of a corrosive and self-righteous attack from those who loathe all it represents.
Theresa May has made quite the impression in her first couple of months in office. She was ruthless in her cabinet changes, seems principled in her obligation to oversee Britain’s departure from the European Union and has been surprisingly quick to review or overturn decisions made by David Cameron, her predecessor. The approaching reintroduction of state grammar schools, for instance, and the controversy that it has certainly caused, is perhaps one of the clearer signs that the liberal establishment is finding itself increasingly sidelined. Powerful, too, has been the insistence on addressing the nation’s problems with mass immigration; a revolutionary and deliberate policy, ushered in by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But regardless of your opinion, there would seem to exist now a strong sense of liberal disempowerment. Liberals feel further from the centre of things than they have in years, and conservatives are likely to embrace this opportunity after years of quite glaring marginalisation. But what form will Theresa May’s expected conservative revolution take?
Whichever direction it takes, it would seem obvious to me that marriage must play a central role. Marriage, an historic institution which sits at the very heart of social, moral and political conservatism, must act as the acid test for May’s experiment with British politics. If marriage is ignored such as it has been for the last few decades, then her revolution need not have been touted as conservative at all.
Without targeting and strengthening marriage, Theresa May cannot herself claim that she has revitalised British conservatism. What parades as a union of two people in fact harbours much more importance in our society, but only if it is strong. And that is quite the point: marriage is not strong in our society, and hasn’t been since one very disastrous legal act was introduced back in the 1960s. It isn’t particularly surprising that in 2013 (figures are not yet available for 2014 or 2015), there were just 240,854 marriages; one of the lowest totals of any year since records began.
When strong, marriage acts as a small kingdom for two people within the big kingdom of the state. Those were the words of D.H. Lawrence, who prophetically warned against the dissolution of marriage on the grounds that it would be replaced by the state’s cynical advances into private territory. Marriage represents an official recognition between individual and the state that there exists in society a little something called private life, and within that private life are matters (such as dealing with inheritance, housing or children) that ought to be controlled within the domain of the marriage and not by the state. Marriage therefore gives man his foothold of independence, promotes loyalty, stabilises family life and actively demands personal responsibility; all respectable qualities in the minds of most conservatives.
So how do we strengthen it?
Firstly, I rather like Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘three month cooling off period’ proposal. This, he argued, would give couples a good idea of the implications of their divorce; be it financial, emotional or the effects on their children. Such a policy could potentially salvage saveable marriages. Secondly, the 1969 Divorce Reform Act must be scrapped and hurled into the unforgiving dustbin of failed, destructive British legislation.
The act had major consequences for marriage in Britain, but it is important to focus on the two most significant. Prior to 1969, marriage had been a solemn and mutual pledge between two people, with crucial emphasis (quite rightly) placed on the fact that it was lifelong and did, in fact, mean ‘til death us do part. After the law was changed in that fateful year, the grounds for divorce were shifted so much so that in order to get one, couples merely had to show that their marriage had deteriorated to the stage of ‘irretrievable breakdown’.
The 1969 Divorce Reform Act must be scrapped and hurled into the unforgiving dustbin of failed, destructive British legislation
Naturally, as soon as the act came into force, the divorce rate shot up. I do not argue that this is a bad thing because I seek to ensure that couples stay tied to a union that is unhappy. Rather I argue that the liberalisation of divorce has had terrible consequences for children, who are the real losers in any divorce where the couple are parents. In this context, therefore, it is important that any divorce act which comes into force in the future distinguishes firmly between couples who have children and couples who do not, and that the grounds for divorce in each case are shifted accordingly.
But the 1969 Act also brought with it another, far-reaching implication, and one from which marriage is yet to recover. By effectively removing the idea of blame in English law, the state subsequently saw fit to barge into people’s private lives and side with the partner seeking to break the contract, rather than the party wishing for it to be maintained. On the face of it, this would seem completely illogical. In other areas of law, the party responsible for breaking a contract is forced by the state to adhere to that contract, but in the case of marriage (since the idea of blame was replaced by that of breakdown), government no longer takes into account the suffering on the part of the partner that is being abandoned. Not in the distribution of marital property does it recognise which partner sought to maintain the marriage and nor when it comes to the custody of children does any such recognition take place. The situation is dire and needs urgent attention.
It has often been suggested that the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2011 damaged the institution of marriage. I do not think this is true. Rather, it would seem to me that had marriage not been severely weakened in years previously, same-sex marriage would not have been introduced at all. I am in favour of same-sex marriage on the grounds that homosexuals are often amongst the fiercest batters for marriage and see the permitting of minority couples to marry as a way not only of encouraging more to marry, but also to convince others of the social benefits of marriage.
The weakening of such a pivotal institution has had profound consequences for the breakup of families, for our housing needs and for the depressing growth in state interference in our personal lives. As conservatives, we know that we are duty-bound to fight for marriage. So the question now is: will Theresa?
Oliver Norgrove is a student of Journalism at University of the Arts, London, and a former media analyst for Vote Leave. He tweets @OliverNorgrove.