Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It's all about relationships; well durr!

It was refreshing to hear Iain Duncan Smith and Ed Milliband debating the value of marriage on ‘Today’ this morning. The main point of discussion was the £20 a week tax break for married couples if one parent stayed at home to look after children, but both MPs still managed to tie themselves in knots.

Duncan Smith was asked whether the £20 was a bribe to get more people to stay together and Ed Milliband was trying to say that he thought marriage was the ‘bedrock of our society’ whilst simultaneously saying that he didn’t mind whether people were married or not. Duncan Smith obviously didn’t want to call it a bribe, but at the same time didn’t want to say that the measure was pointless and would have no effect either.

The trouble was that the discussion was framed in the context of money and ‘incentives’. Do we really think that it is possible to incentivise people to have better relationships by giving them more money? It might have some effect on the margins – if a family is on a low income it might ease the pressure of debt, which is a major factor in breakdowns; it might enable a handful of married parents that wanted to stay at home to fulfil that wish, but surely this is just tinkering at the edges. Tax policy is an extremely blunt instrument when it comes to relationships – no wonder Duncan Smith and Milliband couldn’t cut themselves out of the tangled arguments they were having.

The best way to bring up children is in the context of committed relationships. It is not the only way, but it is the best way. I know of virtually no-one who would disagree. I watch friends in stable relationships with good support networks bring up children and I wonder how they manage. I am constantly amazed by the minor miracles that lone parents perform every single day. Ask an exhausted, overstretched lone parent whether they’d like a partner to support them in bringing up their children well and you can guess what they’ll say. To mend our ‘broken society’ as the conservatives call it we need to invest in our relationships – give our time, expertise and yes money to them.

The state of our relationships with our partner, family and friends is the biggest contributory factor to our happiness, but as a society we don’t systematically try and support people to deepen and strengthen them. However good our relationships are we all need to work at that and society needs to create spaces and places that people can do that – relationship health check ups, pre marriage classes, access to counselling and help before a crisis not when it’s already too late; retreat ‘time away’ weekends for couples…the list is endless.

Politicians believe that the only ‘levers’ of power they have are economic ones. Not true. We need people to lead the way in creating a culture where our relationships come first and politicians have a role to play. Bill Clinton in his 1992 election campaign famously posted the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” – maybe now the sign should read “it’s all about relationships; well, durr.”

1 comment:

  1. I agree entirely Jon that financial incentives are a really poor way of encouraging better relationships. But my other problem with this whole issue is that it stigmatises and penalises people who choose to live their lives in other ways. Although the tax breaks do appear to cover civil partnerships, realistically they seem designed to remind everyone of the conservative's 'traditional' values and punish those who fail to live up to them. What would happen to married couples who separate or divorce? It would seem fundamentally unhelpful to cut the financial support available to the children of such couples at what would already be a traumatic time.
    Aside from anything else I find the assumption that marriage is the ideal pretty offensive (I realise this is not what you were suggesting). A focus on relationships in society is bound to be helpful. A focus on marriage as the best and by implication most moral option is not. Loving, secure, supportive relationships can take many shapes. And I think we should be celebrating and supporting these in whatever form, rather than trying to rate them in a hierarchy of usefulness to society.