There Is No Prospect of Coercing the British into a National Production of 'Little House on the Prairie.' (Economics of Marriage Breakdowns in the UK)

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

There Is No Prospect of Coercing the British into a National Production of 'Little House on the Prairie.' (Economics of Marriage Breakdowns in the UK)


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


Lord Irvine of Lairg puts his money where his mouth is. As he wrote proudly in the Times law section, the government will this year spend [pounds]3 million on grants to marriage support-and-research agencies.

On the same day, Will Carling learnt that he would lose il million from a testimonial match cancelled after he abandoned his fiancee and child. Countess Spencer went to the High Court to sue her former solicitors for [pounds]1.6 million, claiming that they had not got her a hefty enough divorce deal.

In the great lottery of family breakdown, the Irvine millions fail to rate jackpot status. To suggest that the nation's marital crises may be usefully investigated or alleviated at the cost of three Carling testimonials or two Spencer alimony top-up claims implies a loaves-and-fishes dimension to the Lord Chancellor's largesse.

Still, Irvine scores points for directness. His lament that divorce costs an annual [pounds]61 million in legal aid, not to mention draining health, education, transport and housing budgets, hints at what others think but hesitate to say: that those less affluent than Carling or Spencer must be sold the dream of durable marriage because it is cheap.

Irvine at least avoids the contradictory conflation of cant and cash; in which, on the one hand, marriage is lauded by government as the cornerstone of society while, on the other, under proposals supposedly made to Lord Irvine, it should involve a contract offering three versions - mild (hang on to your own assets), medium (agree on a half-half property split) and strong (traditional and binding).

While such labels offer useful guidance when choosing take-away curry or farmhouse cheddar, their function, as applied to marriage, would be to lower the price of divorce. Irvine must be tempted. But a less convoluted tactic exists to promote lastingly cost-effective families. It is used by the Prime Minister, by the Home Secretary and, most recently, by Patrick Tobin, chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

The ploy is moral blackmail, and its currency is children. …

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