Thursday, 12 February 2015

The explosion in divorce

The Labour government's Divorce Reform Act 1969 was the turning point in which British society moved from one of relative family stability to one where broken homes and single parenting became widespread. This legislation relaxed the grounds for obtaining a divorce to one of 'unreasonable behaviour' and introduced new 'no-fault' grounds for divorce when the parties had lived apart for five years, or two years if both agreed to a divorce. Thus the basis for divorce became, 'the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage'. Within a few years the number of divorces shot up to over 120,000 a year, a fourfold increase on the early 1960s total.

As the self declared party of the family one might have thought that the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher would have relished the opportunity to demonstrate their firm commitment to marriage when they came to power in 1979. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of modern Conservatism, they did nothing of the kind. By 1980 the number of divorces had reached 150,000 a year and it has stayed at roughly this level ever since. The Tories’ Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 allowed couples to divorce after only twelve months of marriage. It might more accurately have been called the 'Abolition of Marriage Act 1984' since, in practice, that was the outcome. The Family Law Act 1996, also introduced under the Conservatives, facilitated still further the ease with which divorce could be obtained. It dispensed with the principle of 'fault based divorce', which effectively meant that no grounds needed to be shown as to why a divorce should not be granted.

The history of divorce legislation highlights the gradual transformation from a situation in which obtaining a divorce was almost impossible, to one in which it could be achieved almost on demand. It is worth asking how politicians justified to the electorate such radical changes. However, a search through the party manifestos since the war reveals a near complete failure to mention marriage. There are many references to support for families, but these are invariably couched in terms of better health or education provision, or more generous benefits. But strangely, there is nothing in any Labour or Conservative manifesto which even hints that easier divorce should be allowed. Thus there has never been any electoral mandate for this far reaching change.

Surprisingly, the most ringing defence of the family came from the Labour manifesto of 1997, which declared 'We will uphold family life as the most secure means of bringing up our children. Families are the core of our society. They should teach right from wrong. They should be the first defence against anti-social behaviour. The breakdown of family life damages the fabric of our society. …Families should provide the day-to-day support for children to be brought up in a stable and loving environment'. This explained with brilliant clarity the reasons why the family should be the bedrock of society. However, it failed to acknowledge that the surest way of providing support for families, and a stable upbringing for children, is through the security and commitment that marriage brings. Nor did it challenge the very broad reinterpretation of what constitutes a family which the liberal elite had been promoting, in particular the uncritical endorsement of single parenting.

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