Today the Family Law Bill will finally complete its passage through Parliament. Encrusted with an assortment of barnacle-like amendments, this leaky ship will limp into port this evening. Yet its fundamental principle remains intact. It kills the concept of fault in divorce.
Today will be looked back on as an iconic moment - the day they took shame out of divorce. Social historians will use this convenient date to mark a milestone in changing public attitudes. This is why the Tory right have rebelled in such spectacular fashion. They are right to mark the symbolism of this day.
What started as a minor technical adjustment has turned into a last-ditch moral battle. Lord Mackay has steered this vessel through battery from left and right. On and on he has sailed, pretending this is not a liberal measure on the grounds that that for nine out of 10 couples divorce will now take longer. New figures show that currently 40 per cent of divorcing couples complete the process in six months, 80 per cent within a year. Under the new law it will take everyone 21 months.
The new law will also require more of divorcing couples, prodding them away from damaging and expensive litigation towards mediation - which the Lord Chancellor has sometimes conveniently misrepresented as a way of keeping couples together. Lord Mackay keeps intoning his mantra - this will make divorce harder and slower, not easier.
Divorce may take longer, but in one respect the moral critics of this Bill are right: this law is far more than the sum of its rum parts. It is a symbol of our changed times. A peculiar symbol since it has all been an extraordinary legislative mistake. The Government, like time-share suckers, didn't know what it was signing up to. How easily it was bamboozled by the lawyers' talk of small technical tidying up procedures. It certainly did not read the small print that, by removing the notion of fault, has turned this into one of the few liberal milestones of a reactionary era.
This is a devilish death-blow to the institution of marriage, say the Tory rebels. If there is no sanction in divorce, what is marriage worth? It is already an easier contract to break than a car-hire agreement or renting a television. If you can behave as badly as you like and never feel the blame, if you can do monstrous injustice to your partner and yet go unchallenged by the law, what hope of marriage retaining any useful meaning whatever?
But what they can't see is that this is law just about catching up with the way people behave. Right-wing social engineers imagine the law can bludgeon people into living and loving differently. It can't. This fine June, as you see couples tripping into their white wedding cars, remember that more than half of them will divorce: no law is ever going to be able to stop them falling out of love and leaving home. There can scarcely be a person (common or Royal) in the land who has not had divorce or periods of single parenthood somewhere within their extended family. What sense can you make of a law that proclaims one partner "guilty" in all those failed marriages?
Divorce law has become a perfect example of a law abused and mocked. At the moment, couples can get a divorce after two years' separation if both are agreed. But they can get an instant divorce if one of them claims unreasonable behaviour or adultery. Some three-quarters of couples opt for the quick route, and those with children do so more than those without. This process often adds to the ill-will between them.
It has long been the practice for these cases not to be contested. However wronged one partner might feel by being accused of unreasonable behaviour, lawyers would sensibly advise them that there was no point at all in wasting money fighting it. …