Michael Gove: Who says the decline of marriage is bad for us all? I do

TONIGHT many of us will be populating hotels and public bars, decked out in inappropriate tartan, raising glasses to celebrate the power of love and the joys of (the opposite) sex.

It's what our right arms are for, after all. But in the years ahead the prospects for such festivities look increasingly bleak. Not because of any anti-Burns backlash, but because of the increasing abandonment of another tradition which demands kilts, drams and speeches. Marriage is falling out of fashion.

Figures from the National Statistics Office published last week show that, on current trends, the unwed will outnumber the married within a year. Marriage will join kirk attendance, voting Tory or reading the Sunday Post as an activity which was once the norm, indeed which bound together a majority of Scots, but which is now a minority pursuit.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The flight from the altar is, of course, bad news for kilt hire firms and hoteliers. But, for others it is no great cause for lament. Why should adults be corralled into an institution invented by a church in which a majority no longer believe? Why should the personal have to become public? Why should the million different shapes that love can take be forced into the Victorian corset of mouldy vows and mildewed sentiments? Since most couples live together before they marry, and therefore few these days believe that bridal white reflects virginal purity, why go through a charade just to please parents, when the cash could pay for a new kitchen instead?

Given the strength, and gathering force, of this trend, who would dare stand against it? Who would want to be a Holy Willie, twitching and frothing at what young people get up to these days, seeking to apply the morality of a judgmental and prejudiced past in these, more liberal and tolerant, times?

But if no one points out the consequences of the marginalisation of marriage, then some of the most vulnerable in our society will be voiceless. For the drift away from marital commitment is part of a broader flight from responsibility which is weakening our society and hitting the poorest, hardest.

Marriage is a constraint, it is a restriction on freedom, a corset or corral in which passions which would otherwise run free are subject to disciplines, and personal satisfaction is subordinated to social expectations. But the reason marriage imposes those constraints is to ensure that selfish adults, especially pleasure-seeking males, are placed within a structure which forces them to live up to their responsibilities towards the next generation. A society which expects men to stay married to the mother of their children is a society which places a premium on providing young boys with male role models who embody the virtues of responsibility, restraint and consideration for others.

Children become mature when they grasp the principle of deferred gratification, the idea that greater prizes accrue to those who are prepared to work, wait and share than to those who wish to eat, shoot and leave. When adults behave like children, seeking instant gratification of their desires, abandoning relationships which no longer serve their purposes in pursuit of new, more intense, pleasure they leave children in their wake who have been deprived of the most valuable of inheritances – stability and security in which to grow to maturity.

These nouns may be abstract, but the problems created by the collapse of commitment are not. When I visit primary schools I am struck by how often headteachers point to the increasing numbers of children who, aged five, are incapable of sitting still and listening, who have not learnt how to communicate even basic thoughts and grow frustrated, even violent, when their needs aren't met. The heads I talk to bracket the growth in the numbers of children arriving at school with these disadvantages with the decline in the number of households where both the birth parents still live together. In a sober, entirely pragmatic way they point out that the absence of responsible male role models has a direct effect on the behaviour of the children.

One of the most striking failures of Government over the last 10 years has been the inability of ministers to promote social mobility and make our society more equal. Improving education is crucial to helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve their potential. But making schools better isn't enough, as any teacher will tell you. The early years matter hugely, and children deserve the care of both the adults who brought them into this world.

As Scots we instinctively understand the language, and spirit, of solidarity. The strong make sacrifices to support the weak because together we are all more likely to prosper. Woven into the Scots character, like a golden thread in Gordon tartan or the name of a historic struggle on a trade union banner, is a rejection of "de'il tak the hindmost" selfishness and a belief in responsibility towards others. If we've believed in these virtues in an industrial context shouldn't we also apply them in a domestic one?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

If we're all reviewing our economic perspectives in the wake of the credit crunch, shouldn't we also extend that same process to our most intimate concerns? Shouldn't we see personal relations less through the prism of celebrating freedom and maximising pleasure and more as a means of growing through sharing? Support for marriage should actually be a cause behind which progressives rally. We may promise to wed for richer, for poorer, but we all live in an impoverished society if more and more people choose to put me before we.

Michael Gove is Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families

Related topics: