The Sunday Times

February 6th, 2011

Well, if unmarried couples do get a raw deal, there is an easy fix

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: things should not be multiplied any more than necessary. That is the law of Occam’s razor, dreamt up by William of Ockham, a 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar, one of the few laws of any kind that appealed to me in my undergraduate youth. What it means in plain English, I think, is: keep it simple. If only people would.

I should like to take Occam’s razor to Lord Justice Wall, the High Court judge who is president of the Family Division. Last week Wall told The Times that he thought unmarried couples in England and Wales (more than 2m and rising fast, so that more than one in three children are born to unmarried parents) should be given legal rights to share property and money when they separate so as to make their lot more equal to the lot of married people who divorce.

Wall believes the situation is particularly unfair to unmarried women, because they do not have the same rights as married women or as gay couples in civil partnerships. Sixty per cent or more of unmarried people imagine they have legal rights as common-law spouses, but this is a myth. They do not and they often face nasty surprises and legal costs when they split up.

The solution that Wall and countless other judges, lawyers, pressure groups and liberals are agitating for is yet more legislation, on top of the civil partnership legislation of 2004, so that the legal benefits of the married can be extended to the unmarried. How the blood boils. Such legislation will certainly make lots more work for lawyers and others, but it is not necessary. It is not desirable. It is wrong.

There is already a simple way, for heterosexuals at least, to have all the legal privileges and protection of marriage. That is to get married. Nothing could be simpler. It needs only a trip to the local register office and a few signatures.

No vicars, no rabbis, no whiffs of incense or leaping over broomsticks, no big white frocks or raucous hen nights in Amsterdam need be involved. It can easily be done in a lunchtime break, with strangers as witnesses and dark glasses for discretion. Nobody need know.

Those who dislike the wider meaning of matrimony can truly regard their marriage as a purely civil contract, rather than a social or personal statement. But the resulting piece of paper will guarantee them all the rights that Wall feels unmarried couples should have. And it would save parliament, the courts and the taxpayer all the expensive fuss and bother of getting the same result the unnecessarily hard way.

Why are couples increasingly avoiding marriage? The reasons keep shifting. There was a time in my youth when matrimony was frowned on by progressives: it meant taking part in the patriarchal repression of bourgeois society, with its injustice to women, its suppression of sexuality, its nuclear family neurosis and so on.

I had some sympathy with this at the time, although I did notice that quite a few of my richer socialist friends found it convenient to avoid marriage for bourgeois-capitalist reasons.

In the 1970s housebuyers could get tax relief on mortgage interest payments: the allowance was up to £25,000 (at least £250,000 in today’s money) for a single person or a married couple. An unmarried couple, as two single people, got double — an allowance of £500,000 in today’s money — a powerful incentive for some of the richer trend-setters to avoid marriage, along with revolutionary reasons.

Those days are long gone. The repressive cultural mindset in which women were made to resign from their job on marriage, or were deliberately paid less or shown less respect as mere part-timers or housewives and dependants, has simply disappeared in what has been the greatest triumph of feminism.

However, the socialist-feminist habit of avoiding marriage on principle and the permissive refusal, which went along with it, to see sex and parenthood outside marriage as morally wrong have persisted.

What has compounded this aversion to marriage in recent years is the insanity of the couple penalty, brought about by Gordon Brown’s working families’ tax credit legislation of 1999. Even more than a couple penalty, it’s a marriage penalty.

Designed to help the swelling numbers of low-income single mothers, including the never-married, this and other Labour legislation mean that couples (married and unmarried) who live together receive substantially less tax credit and other benefits than they would if they lived apart. There is a perverse incentive to separate, which is of course easier for an unmarried couple to do or pretend to do. As a result, for people in lower income brackets it is simply not a rational choice to get married.

The Conservatives promised to end the ridiculous couple penalty but, under pressure from their coalition partners, that promise has been put on hold. The result is that more and more people avoid getting married, with the further result that more and more of them face the difficulties on splitting up that Wall wants to put right. It does make the fingers itch for Occam’s razor.

So, incidentally, did the unnecessary civil partnership legislation, which was aimed at homosexual couples who wanted to marry without actually letting them do so. Why not let them marry normally, on exactly the same legal terms as anybody else? Why the legal nonsense and social oddity of a “civil partnership”? Marriage should be open to all couples wishing to have all the legal protection it gives, and at the same time everyone should be made to understand from earliest youth, as clearly as they understand most other important benefits, that if they don’t get married they won’t have the legal protection of marriage. And if they do, they won’t suffer any marriage penalty of any kind.

This is not a moral or social argument. I don’t for one minute imagine that people will behave differently just because they have finally been convinced that they need a marriage licence, just as they need a passport to travel.

My argument is based on a simple-minded understanding of Occam’s razor and also on sod’s law and the law of unintended consequences: when it comes to the expense and delay of the law and the infinite varieties of family life, do not pile interference upon complexity. It is cheaper and clearer — and more just — to keep it simple.