6 January 2023

Why do politicians still shy away from the M-word?


It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Rishi Sunak chose to mention ‘family’ in his mini-manifesto of government priorities earlier this week. The Prime Minister proudly slapped himself on the back for even using the ‘F’ word in a major speech, something he clearly felt was a bold move, sticking it to the metropolitan elite with their often bizarre views on family relations.

And a quick look at the roll call of major Sunak supporters shows that many of the most pro-family Tory MPs were enthusiastic Sunak backers. This week their enthusiastic endorsement for hs leadership was, in part, repaid. The Prime Minister might have been willing to talk up the role of families but the really brave move would have been to talk more about a word many poliicians seem to have real difficulty with – marriage.

You have to go back to the days of David Cameron to find a government willing to mention marriage and even then a hostile George Osborne did everything he could to stop the Prime Minister talking about it. It was the one big thing they disagreed on. The results is that what used to be a familiar Tory tune has all but disappeared from the lexicon, as quickly as the institution of marriage has been declining in Britain.

That might sound overly dramatic, but the numbers crunched by my colleagues at Civitas do suggest that marriage in the UK is in precipitous decline. Indeed, at the current rate, marriage will be all but extinct in this country within as little as 40 years.

Some will hear that and think ‘so what?’. It’s long been a truism that families come in all shapes and sizes, and last year was the first time a majority of new births were to unmarried couples. If moving with the times means fewer people getting married, is that a big deal?

The answer is clearly that it is, particularly as there is plenty of evidence that families headed by a married couple are more likely to stay together. You don’t need to follow Rishi’s lead and study maths until you’re 18 to understand the numbers here. In a major study conducted last year, researchers found that 75% of parents who were married when their child was born were still together when their children were doing their GCSEs. Just as crucially, only a third of parents who had never married stayed together over the same period.

So, when the Prime Minister talks about ‘strong, stable families’ without explicitly mentioning marriage, he overlooks the most stable family type of all. It shouldn’t strike anyone as unreasonable to expect your partner to commit to sticking around when you have children. Interestingly, researchers also recently found that the lowest income married couples are more likely to stay together than the highest income unmarried parents.

There is plenty of evidence to link family upheaval with poorer later outcomes, from doubling the chances of growing up in poverty, to doing badly school.

Nor is that a particularly radical thing to tell the public. For al that some Tories might fear that majoring on marriage risks appearing judgmental or a bit fuddy-duddy, there is little evidence that talking marriage is politically unpopular. Two thirds of Brits think that marriage is the most stable for raising children, and over 70% think marriage is important and that the Government should support married couples. For most of Britain that is not old-fashioned, it’s just common sense. You’ll even find Gen-Z agreeing – not least because many of them will sadly have experienced a family break-up themselves.

The upshot of all this is that political leaders of all stripes should find a way to talk about marriage in the same breath as other pro-family policies. In that vein, the PM’s restatement of a commitment to roll out Family Hubs was very welcome. But if he wants to make a truly bold statement in this area, he should promise to do something about our plummeting marriage rates.

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Frank Young is editorial director at the Civitas think tank.Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.