The real turn-off is a lack of marriageable men
The other day, I was giving a lift to a group of 14-year-old girls and, as we waited at the traffic lights, I became dimly aware of something remarkable about their conversation. They were all bright sparks, in the process of being coached up by their schools to become captains of industry, Members of Parliament and all the rest of it.
But as I inclined my ear, I realised that they weren’t discussing their dotcoms; they weren’t preparing for the time when they would be joining each other on the pages of Fortune magazine or Business Week.
No, they were discussing marriage. They were planning their wedding days, down to the last sugared almond and the exact cut of their dresses. Not only were they consulting a magazine called Brides, these 14-year-olds, but they had a special supplement of Brides, featuring a hunk in morning dress.
The name of the supplement was Groom, and as I looked at Groom magazine, I noticed a key but symbolic detail: it was considerably thinner than Brides. Brides was massive – about 250 glossy pages, dripping with advertisements and panting with advice – whereas Groom was a thoroughly laconic affair about 10 pages long; and, as I listened to their chatter, I suddenly became all sentimental, and thought how touching it was that young girls should care so deeply about their distant nuptials; and I tried to remember whether I, as a 14-year-old, had given the slightest thought to marriage, or what kind of pearl tie-pin I would use on the great day, and of course the answer is no.
I think of those girls, and their sense of expectancy, and I defy anyone to say that people don’t want to get married these days. Of course they do, and that is one reason why everyone gets so terribly cross when politicians start promising money to those who achieve it. What about Bridget Jones, they cry? What about people who are never going to get married because they are gay? What about people who just aren’t lucky in love? What about people who get junked by their spouse? How dare the state reward the winners? And that is the argument that will be used against the Tory proposal to encourage marriage with a transferable tax allowance.
Some people will say that it is just not right for the taxpayer to cough up for a married couple, while doing nothing for a widow; and then there are the myriad couples who bring up their children to behave impeccably in every way, but who see no reason to consecrate their love for each other in a marriage ceremony, and who frankly get very shirty when told that a bunch of politicians seems implicitly to disapprove of their arrangements.
Why should they face some kind of financial discrimination? And what about the poor girls who want to get married, who have been nurtured on the pages of Brides, but who are simply left on the shelf? Is it right that they should sit it out, and watch their more confident and more nubile friends get an additional reward, in the first week of marriage, in the form of £20 from the government?
For a moment, I toyed with proposing some kind of marriage seekers’ allowance, to give succour and encouragement to those girls who were finding it hard to find any man at all, let alone the cover model of Groom magazine. I postulated a new form of benefit for all those who are genuinely deemed to have been desirous of marriage, but who have found it impossible to pull off: provided they could show the relevant bureaucrat that they had made every effort to go on dates and look their best; provided they were turning down offers of matrimony only from out-and-out losers and psychopaths, then maybe their plight and their effort should be recognised by the state. Of course, there are flaws in the idea. It is clearly open to fraud, and, like all such fiscal twiddling, it is hard to believe that it will really deal with the underlying problem.
David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith are plainly right to extol the benefits of marriage, and, if a £20 tax credit would really begin to bubblegum together our broken society, then that would clearly be a price worth paying. The Tory Social Justice Policy Group is bang on in its analysis of the damage done by family breakdown, and it is certainly right to think that it is outrageous that the benefit system should be so heavily skewed in favour of single parent families. Recipients of tax credits face clear disincentives to find a partner or form a two-parent family, and those need to be removed.
But before we go any further down the fiscal route, I think we need to look at the real problem, the underlying problem – the problem expressed by the relative dimensions of Bride and Groom magazines.
The single most important thing we can do to encourage marriage is to increase the supply of marriageable men. The real challenge facing our society is the shocking growth in the number of underachieving white working-class boys.
We now have an educational system in which girls are powering ahead of boys in every department, and in which disadvantaged white working-class boys are increasingly turned off academic competition. They have no male teachers in the classroom to inspire them and interest them and, for all their braggadocio they are, of course, lacking in intellectual confidence. They are the ones who get loaded, and wasted, and who turn into the Asbos and the hoodies; and they are frankly not good marriage prospects.
The crisis in the family has many causes: selfishness, atomism, changes in housing. But the root cause is the change in the respective role and accomplishments of the sexes. We won’t begin to reverse the decline in marriage unless we address the crisis in masculinity. We have would-be brides aplenty – but where are the grooms?