The Tories are promising tax-breaks for married couples, which Harriet Harman has described as ‘hypocritical moralising‘. But both are in fact wrong — Harman for her notion that ‘Families won’t want to be lectured by anybody about how to lead their lives’, with the implicit underlying assumption that all forms of family are equally functional, and the Tories for attempting to use tax-breaks as a form of social engineering.
Large numbers of studies have shown that long term stable parental relationships are better for children, and that married couples are less likely to split up than cohabiting couples. But equally strong evidence suggests that increasing wealth inequality across society has an at-least equally detrimental effect. The pivotal study is described in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, which shows how more equal societies do better.
The problem with the Tory proposal of creating a more advantageous tax situation for married couples (and I was one of those disadvantaged when Labour took this away in the 1990s) is that they are piling material rewards onto those who are more likely to become wealthy anyway. Voters, of course, love the notion of rewarding the good (married couples) while punishing the bad (single mothers on benefits), and it’s an easy button to press if you are an unpopular politician facing an angry crowd. But the truth is, if you punish single mothers by limiting their benefits, then you exacerbate inequalities in society, and the result will be more crime, more social unrest, less happiness, a greater differential in life expectancy, and a vicious circle which we should be doing everything we can to avoid.
Harman’s attack on the Tories is misguided — there is nothing hypocritical about supporting marriage, and a tax-break is not a form of lecturing. But the Tories have reverted to type by making a financial appeal the measure of all things. The reason we are now in a recession, despite the promises of Mssrs Clarke and Brown of an end to boom and bust, is that we have persisted in evaluating all things in economic terms. We have urged the brightest, most able, and (let’s face it) the luckiest on with ever higher bonuses, and we have supported an industry where companies are free to advertise loans to people who cannot possibly afford them, and no-win-no-fee court cases to those who would be better to get on with their lives. At the same time, our culture has increasingly valued possession of goods as the marker of personal worth. The three consequences of this should be obvious to all: economic recession, as we adjust to only spending money we actually have, climate change, brought on by conspicuous consumerism on a global scale, and deep social malaise, as everyone looks at the ideal world presented in TV ads and colour supplements and sees themselves falling short.
Social cohesion is essential for our future, and marriage is a key building block in social cohesion, but rewarding it with more money simply adds to another social problem.
As I mentioned before, I was personally cross when Gordon Brown took away our married person’s allowance, and that, with the subsequent demise of MIRAS which kept our mortgage down, had a very serious impact on our finances at the time. Taking things away that people rely on always causes hardship, and rarely does anywhere near the amount of good that was expected of it. But reinstating this allowance, as the Tories wish to, will not really be helping those who are hardest hit by the recession. Doing so in a means-tested way might help, but means testing is what the Tories hate most, since they want to reward people who have money with more money. I would not go so far as to ever accuse them of wishing to punish the poor for being poor. But in a society where relative, rather than absolute, poverty contributes so strongly to low self-esteem and consequent problems, that is effectively the result of what they are proposing.
We do need to support the things which hold society together. But we need to think of more creative and effective ways of doing it. As long as we continue to make money the measure of all things, we will continue to see British national life slide into oblivion.