Who knew? The EU destroyed the traditional nuclear family

ring by Eivind Barstad Waaler on Flickr

“Heaven preserve us from pundits and experts” begins Paul Coleridge, in his recent opinion piece in The Telegraph : Brexit is an opportunity to reverse the tragic decline of marriage in Britain.


I’ve got a right strop on.

You’ll be relieved to hear that I am going to spare you my views on Brexit itself, and will focus on the main hypothesis in this piece, which is basically that in Brexit lies the cure to the social malaise that is epitomised by the decline in marriage and the epidemic of single mothers.

For those wondering whether this connection between Brexit and marriage is entirely opportunistic, it is apparently National Marriage Week. So, whilst for the other 51 weeks of the year Brexit is more commonly described as a metaphorical divorce (a metaphor that has endless potential), this week the tables are turned :

So, with that in mind, let me explain why our decision to exit the European Union and revert to full self-government of the UK might revive marriage and enhance family stability.

Oh, go on then. Hit me with your hypothesis…

Apparently it boils down to national psychology. We joined the EU out of weakness not strength. And the EU has caused our “traditional independence and self-confidence [to] wither”.

Also, there’s some statistics and a graph. We are told that before EU 90% of new parents were married, but now we’ve got 2 million single parents – we are presumably intended to infer some sort of causal relationship between our membership and this devastating social decline. I’ve no quibble with those statistics, but I will eat my wig if this trend is not replicated in pretty much any western country you care to name whether inside or outside the EU.

If you are wondering how it is that the EU has had such a corrosive effect on us, its all to do with the EUs “behemothic” ambitious legal nannying tendencies. Remember that stoned, satiated look when a baby has just drained the last dregs out of a massive feed? That’s how I imagine poor Britannia, bloated and unable to do anything for herself, swaddled in EU regulations (sorry my metaphor key got stuck down).

Anyway, this particular passage is just my bestie favourite in the whole piece :

And this “State will provide” attitude infected our national domestic life too. The generous welfare system did nothing to discourage family breakdown and it became economically possible for a woman to support children without financial support from herself or a husband. More and more items of our household expenditure were picked up by the State. Notions of individual family self-reliance faded.

Dammit, how I *wish* we could go back to those good ol’ times when it was economically impossible for a woman to support children without financial support (and permission) from her husband. If only it weren’t for women’s pesky notions of individual self-reliance we could go back to those happy days where people were forced to stay in unhealthy and abusive relationships that damaged themselves and their children.

I’ll confess that I’m struggling here to reconcile Coleridge’s enthusiasm for our national spirit of independence with his apparent wistful regret about the development of women’s independence. I don’t think he’s noticed the massive contradiction at the heart of his article. Do you think this might be the point where I’m supposed to suggest Sir Paul should “check his privilege”?

It’s pretty clear from Coleridge’s description here that his vision is of a vast population of single mothers (not fathers) all happily claiming benefits and lounging on sofas. Look at the passage above – it’s not men who unfortunately also become economically able to leave, thereby wrecking society with their selfishness and the emergence of “individual self-confidence” to leave abusive relationships. It’s just women. In this dystopian landscape there are no self-reliant working women or feckless fathers, and probably no benefit dads with care. It’s just us girls spoiling things by not letting our husbands provide and be independent for us.

Quite apart from my feminist rage, there is another huge non-sequitur in Coleridge’s argument. The capacity of a parent or family to be independent (or not) is nothing to do with marital status. It is to do with wealth, and to do with the economic on-costs of relationship breakdown (whether married or cohabiting) – two households cost more to run than one. Marriages break down too.

Coleridge neglects half of the equation. It is basic logic that for every single mum there is a single dad somewhere. And when I last checked, being unmarried or separated did not relieve the absent parent of his (or her) obligation in law and conscience to maintain a child where that parent is financially able. Much (though not all) benefit dependence is a function of the failure of an absent parent to honour that duty (sometimes wilfully but sometimes because it genuinely cannot be done). A failure to maintain is something that in my experience both formerly married and former cohabitants are equally likely to be guilty of (indeed many with assets and a decent income may resist marriage precisely to ensure their poor partner never acquires any marital rights).

I’ll skip over the usual Marriage Foundation marriage propaganda about how children of marrieds do better blah blah blah (completely unconnected to the fact that marrieds tend to be better off, and entirely down to the magical magickness of marriage as a thing).


Coleridge finishes with this :

Of course, no one could sensibly suggest that Brexit is a magic bullet for the restoration of the stable married family. 

(says the man who has just written an article pretty much saying that exact thing).

I prefer to switch that around and say that no one could sensibly suggest that marriage is a magic bullet for our social problems. And my humble prediction is that the only impact Brexit will have on marriage rates is probably those poor families including one parent is an EU citizen from another member state who are desperately trying to work out how to secure their right to remain together with their family post Brexit.


Feature pic courtesy of Eivind Barstad Waaler on Flickr – thanks!

13 thoughts on “Who knew? The EU destroyed the traditional nuclear family

  1. I’d like to congratulate you on reading that article to the end. I got to the third line and was so overwhelmed by feelings of “what a load of cobblers” I nearly put my phone down.

  2. You’re wrong of course with your flippant disregard to marriage as being a strong factor in addressing many social problems. The evidence is overwhelming if you bother to look.

    Your throwaway comment about children of the married doing better because married people are better off fails to reflect the clear evidence that children of poor married couples do better than those who are not. Or that many of those on low income who are married become better off as they progress through their lives compared to the unmarried.

    You may dislike that the evidence demonstrates that children do far better generally when living in families who are married than those in other arrangements (whatever their income) but there you go, it’s a fact.

    It is fashionable to sneer in some quarters at those who are pro-marriage but the comparable devastation to children’s life chances in many unmarried families is stark.

    • Bethany T,
      I don’t doubt that children of marrieds do better, but I do think that suggestions made by the MF that there is a direct and simple causal relationship are dubious. Families are individual and marriage is an individual choice. As it happens I’ve been married for 16 years, but I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that people who make different choices about the legal framework of their relationships are less committed or worse parents than I. The idea that unmarried or separated parents are failing their children is really quite offensive. Many parents fail their children both in marriage and after. Some parents fail their children through the way in which they handle separation. Some fail their children for reasons outside their control. Marriage is just not an answer. There are far more obvious levers for improving outcomes for children than a white dress and a ring.

  3. I have to apologise in advance because I am going to say what I have said before on this site but it bears repeating.

    A couple of years ago the Institute of Fiscal Studies produced detailed research in two linked reports that showed that it is the type of people who tend to marry and their family circumstances that are responsible for the positive outcomes of marriage. Thus if those who are irresponsibly (I jest for effect) cohabiting were bussed down to the registry office tomorrow, the outcomes of their relationships in terms of stability, effect on child rearing and all the rest of it would be no different from what it is now.

    Further, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity, which is based on and references extensive research, show that when people are under stress, whether poverty of time or resources or even when dieting and thus preoccupied with thoughts of food, their mental resources for taking decisions that serve their own best interests is considerably reduced. They are simply exhausted by and preoccupied with their basic struggle too keep going, both physically and psychologically.

    Daniel Kahneman in his well known book “Thinking, fast and slow” references research that demonstrates that when people are advantaged, even when this is in an experiment and by a random allocation of which they are aware, those who are privileged come to believe that they are more entitled than others and – crucially – that those who are not so lucky are inherently less entitled. The corollary of that is that people who are less advantaged, whether by poverty or age (lack of strength) are not, as the Facebook memes suggest, nicer and kinder because they help others but are more vulnerable and therefore have an inherent interest in creating alliances.

    Sorry about all this but the research is already out there – what those who lack resources need is – MONEY!

    • Thank you Norma, I had neither time nor emotional energy last night to deal with this point – hence my “flippant disregard” of it – you make the point I would have made if I had been bothered!

  4. The decline in marriage and the massive rise in divorce began around 1970. This was coincident with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. I couldn’t prove a link, but the data is striking:
    The Government has removed just about all incentives for being married, married man’s (person’s?) allowance, reducing child benefit for high earners, etc.
    There is little or no incentive for men to get married. You will virtually never see a man wanting to get married, but women get very excited about the prospect and their “special day”. You won’t hear many men referring to their wedding day as their “special day” and most men will commiserate with other men when they announce they’re engaged.
    If you’re a good husband and work hard, have a family, but through no fault of your own you end up being divorced (70% of divorce petitions are filed by women) you can look forward to losing all your assets, losing touch with your kids and having to pay for your children and your ex wife for the rest of your life. One recent divorce case saw the wife coming back after 15 years, having squandered the proceeds of the marriage, claiming she couldn’t work and getting an increase in maintenance for herself.


    If the judges want someone to blame they should look to themselves first and parliament next.

    I ask you, what on earth is the incentive for a man to get married?

    • wow. anyone would think marriage was about money not love. completely depressed now.
      your dystopian picture of men cajoled into marriages they don’t want by ditzy women just interested in a party is rather depressing. also the idea that it is only men who have assets.
      we don’t know the details of the case that you mention because the judgment is not yet out. I suspect there is rather more to it than meets the eye / is presented by the telegraph.

      • Not sure that I am with you all the way there, Lucy. The more I learn about the institution of marriage, how it came about and those who enter into it why, the more I am absolutely convinced that marriage really is a transaction of property and rights, as per Jane Austen. Just think of what happens when a marriage breaks down and what people are concerned about then, if you don’t me.

        For example, one of the reasons that people wish now to enter into a civil partnership, rather than get married, is because they wish for the property/pension rights that are available in legally recognised alliances.

        Today’s judgment of the Supreme Court concerning Denise Brewster might be seen as an example of similar concerns albeit, that she was engaged to marry at the time her partner died.

        For what it is worth, and I appreciate that might not be much, I think that life would be a lot simpler for many people if this was all acknowledged and if marriages were arranged in a similar fashion to those in France. In other words, everybody who wishes to enter into a union with another person would have a civil partnership and if they wish for any other additional celebration, whether religious or of any sort, that could be held at a later and different time but not be of any concern to the state.

        Think of the words of the religious marriage service: ” with all my worldly goods I thee endow” “all that I have I give to you” [ and unsaid but also meant “unless and until we split up”].

        It isn’t unromantic: it is common sense!

        I’ve only held this view since I have become more interested in history and legal history.

        • don’t panic Norma, I don’t think we really disagree. I was just being a bit flippant really. I know it is also about money and all sorts of other pragmatic things…

    • Oh Brian, what a charmer you are. You have made me swoon so much I will need to sit down for the rest of the evening. No wonder us women are absolutely dying to have our “special day” with you.

      PS, us silly girls by the good grace of social progression and equal opportunities now have our own assets, so you can keep your Ford Mondeo.

  5. Sarah Phillimore

    Well said Norma. Entirely agree. Marriage is not the CAUSE of a loving, stable relationship. It is a reflection of it. That does not mean that it is impossible for cohabitants to have a loving, stable relationship – many do – but the statistics are clear. Cohabiting relationships break down quicker.

    I don’t dispute that marriage is a fundamental part of stability for the family. What I do very firmly dispute is that a man of his class and his generation should preach about marriage to a world that is – thankfully in my view – entirely different.

    I remember at a law dinner asking a slightly tipsy senior judge what his proudest achievement was. He said ‘my wife’. At first I was touched. Then I pondered a little more on the realities operating behind that statement. He was from a generation of men where women were offered few choices in life and upon marriage probably had to give up whatever career they might have carved out before it. His success, comfort and happy family life were largely due to the fact that he had been able to be supported by an intelligent and capable women who put her energies into the family and enabled him to concentrate on achieving success in his profession.

    that isn’t the world any longer. And I, and my daughter are glad.

    And I’m a single mother Sir P. I pay higher rate taxes. What’s your beef with me?

  6. Independence for women is great if they really are independent.So many women now are single mums dependent on the State and that cannot be a good thing and cannot really be called independence !.If the father vanishes or is “uknown” that also is a bad thing.
    How can we reduce the number of single mums and feckless fathers? Well I reckon that since the swinging sixties successfully promoted the slogan “Make love not war” there is not much we can do to reverse this trend unless the government actually promotes marriage instead of penalising it through the tax system.
    If there were huge tax incentives for those who marry or enter a civil partnership and who stay together the government would probably do very well financially, saving more in benefits than it gave away in tax réductions. I have no proof of this but it does seem to be common sense enough to be worth trying out without shrill cries from singles that they are being discriminated against ! If committed couples save the government money by committing and staying committed they should be rewarded for that reason and not for their “morals” !

  7. News of Sir P’s latest load of tosh made it to the Southern Hemisphere – but I couldn’t get more than four lines in without feeling the urge to throw my laptop out of the window. How can he think that marriage is some sort of cure-all for childhood ills in the light of the latest headlines that a third of British families are living on inadequate incomes? Does he really think that separated parents are lolling about in the lap of luxury? I have had so many clients whose kids couldn’t have their friends round for tea because their parents couldn’t afford an extra plate of food.
    What will he come up with next – Trump as the saviour of marriage because outlawing abortion and easy access to contraception will stop people (read women) having control of their fertility? The mind boggles. Honestly.

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