Anthony Savlle considers the room for manoeuvre for a political party wan ting to offer support for marriage

There is something about Tory ex-leaders. William Hague has grown into a wonderfully trenchant speaker and commentator, and Iain Duncan Smiths work on marriage and community has the most interesting and imaginative ideas coming out of Westminster.

Are they workable? In a democracy, now that a sizeable proportion (even a majority) of people are not married, is it a serious political option to promote marriage and to give it special financial advantages by legislation? Can you seriously promote something that has been so evidently rejected by so many people?

Whose interest?

The question is: does government have any direct interest in marriage and in promoting it? From a social point of view, it is not marriage but what it achieves that is of political interest. The argument in favour, supported by a wealth of evidence as Duncan Smith points out, is that children do better if they are brought up in a stable home with their biological parents. Marriage happens to be the best means of realizing this goal, and this is why government (on behalf of us all) has an interest in it. Couples who are married are far more likely to stay together than those who are simply cohabiting.

And so on. There is no lack of evidence supporting the social usefulness of marriage. Unfortunately, it is not the sort of evidence that is readily or easily discussed at a time when the institution is in such obvious decline. Religion is also good for you, but so what? The evidence is there and solid enough, but is it a sufficient foundation on which to introduce legislation? Seemingly not.

Reasons against

To make matters worse, there is an equally solid reason why government does not have an interest in marriage. It is, after all, the most significant institution that protects the individual against the state. Marriage creates a sort of state within the state with its own form of government, law and order. It is self-regulating and self-sufficient.

Now more than ever, a democratic government has a clear interest in dealing with its citizens as individuals, for it offers a simpler and more direct relationship. If Mrs Thatcher broke the power of the unions, New Labour broke the power of the family. With fewer and fewer people in a long-term stable marriage, it is difficult to see it become popular once again in the political realm, despite the solid worth of what IDS is putting forward.

If government has no direct interest in marriage, we should also ask whether the Church has a direct interest. It had and still has a direct interest in the celibate life, and been well aware that marriage and family life can easily distract a Christian disciple from his or her commitment to the Lord. So what is there in marriage that matters so much?

Love and commitment

Liberals say (roughly) that it is the love and commitment expressed in the marriage vows that matters most. Therefore, it is not marriage per se that is close to the heart of the Gospel, but committed relationships, heterosexual or homosexual; which would be unarguable if (but only if) one leaves out the children.

Marriage is about the children. In this sense, the Church agrees with government: what matters is that children are born into and nurtured within a stable unit comprising its biological parents and any siblings. Except that by ‘stable’ we mean ‘contractually assured’.

Should the Church be involved in promoting marriage within the political sphere (as argued by the Christian Parties Alliance)’? As a matter of justice, we could and should seek to remove the existing penalties against marriage, for example in social security and other payments where living apart has marked financial advantages. But arguing in favour of tax breaks for married couples? These are, in political terms, part of a lost agenda, gone for ever. Where do we turn now?