The day may yet come when the only people who want to get married in Britain will be lesbian clergywomen. This is extrapolation, but in our ridiculous, disintegrating country, it is not especially wild extrapolation. The Church of England long ago flung off its corset of respectability and its bonnet of restraint, and is heading toward almost total sexual equality between almost everyone. And it is a fascinating fact of modern life that, as heterosexuals spurn matrimony, homosexuals hanker for wedlock.
Since 1969, when it became easier to dissolve a British marriage than to escape a car-leasing agreement, the annual number of heterosexual weddings has been on a mainly downward path, diminishing from more than 400,000 every year to fewer than 250,000. This has happened despite a rapidly rising population, and also despite the number of nuptials being artificially boosted by an unknown (but quite large) number of bogus weddings, contracted solely to obtain citizenship.
Traffic in the opposite direction, through the divorce courts, is also thinner than it was. Heterosexual divorces (you too will have to get used to these new statistical subdivisions, as the march of sexual liberation continues) were until recently running at around 150,000 a year. They have now diminished quite sharply to about 120,000 a year. But do not rejoice. These sad totals fell not because of a sudden return to fidelity, but because most of the people who wanted to get divorced had done so (often more than once), and because increasing numbers of young couples couldn’t see any point in getting married in the first place.
Matrimony in our not-very-United Kingdom confers almost no tax advantages (unless you die, when it protects against inheritance tax) and no status. The words “husband” and “wife” have more or less been written out of official documents, usually replaced by “partner,” precisely so as to abolish any distinction. In incessant sex-education classes, schools teach that any old parental relationship is as good as any other, and a teacher who suggests otherwise will be in trouble from our busy and efficient “Equality and Diversity” thought police, always ready to report an “inappropriate” remark. (The main threat to free speech in Britain is the danger faced by state employees of losing their jobs if they say the wrong thing.)
When a marriage cracks up, the husband can usually expect to be on the losing side when it comes to property division and custody of the children. His behavior is largely irrelevant. The old joke, “I don’t think I’ll get married. I’ll just find a woman I don’t like and buy her a house,” has more or less come true. That is just the way the courts rule, and have done for a long time. In the Anglosphere’s civil law, it seems to be a necessary consequence of no-fault divorce. Men have, quite reasonably, become increasingly cautious about committing themselves at all. This may well be why the number of cohabiting unmarried heterosexual couples has increased from 1.5 million in 1996 to 2.9 million in 2012. The sad tally of dependent children living in these marriage-free households has also doubled—from 0.9 million to 1.8 million—during the same period. This is a huge, accelerating social revolution that has devastated what was left of Protestant Christian family life in what is now known as “The Ukay.” To call it “England” is profoundly incorrect, as this is deemed insulting to the Scots, Welsh, Irish, and nowadays Cornish inhabitants of our islands. “Great Britain” has an outdated, imperial ring to it. So we have joined the USA in that small group of countries known mainly by their initials.
THE UKAY’S sexual revolution was foreseeable and foreseen. It is more than 30 years since Baroness Hale (now a member of our shiny new Supreme Court) noted that “family law no longer makes any attempt to buttress the stability of marriage or any other union. It has adopted principles for the protection of children and dependent spouses which could be made equally applicable to the unmarried.” She prophesied correctly that the “piecemeal erosion” of the distinction between the married and the unmarried could be expected to continue. And she concluded that we should be discussing “whether the legal institution of marriage continues to serve any useful purposes.”
Actually, hardly anyone discusses this at all. It is much easier to let things drift until it is all over. No serious attempt has been made to soften or moderate the extraordinarily radical divorce reforms of 1969. That law means that if one spouse in a marriage wishes to stay wedded and the other does not, the one who wants to keep his or her vows can be dragged by force of law from the family home, under the ultimate threat of imprisonment. In theory, you could be locked up for insisting on keeping your own wedding vows. Of course such scenes seldom happen. The wronged husband or wife gives way long before matters reach such a stage. But the threat is there. This ferocious extension of state power and invasion of family life has been met with almost total silence.
Political conservatives are uninterested in this terrific development and have made no effort to reverse or moderate it in the 44 years since it began. Yet they cannot stop talking about same-sex marriage. They have been provoked into this, of course. British governments, pushed onward by the higher authority of the European Union and its courts (which trump ours), have moved relentlessly toward granting homosexuals the privileges of wedlock. In 2004 they did so in all but name by creating a legal status known as “Civil Partnership,” available only to same-sex couples but otherwise identical to civil marriage. The main result has been to show that this issue is important only to a very small number of people, and to prove—if it needed demonstrating—that Professor Kinsey’s wild claims about the extent of homosexuality were just that: wild. Currently, about 6,000 homosexual civil partnerships are formed each year in a country of more than 6o million people. They do not all last. Dissolutions of civil unions have been rising, and are now at more than 600 a year after a slow start, with lesbian households rather more likely to split than male homosexuals. Such households remain very rare, distant from most people’s lives and affecting one-fifth of 1 percent of the population.
Listening to parliamentary debate and the BBC, you would think that same-sex marriage was the most important moral issue facing us. But we are also close to being obsessed with sexual change in a Church of England that few attend. There has been much strange fury among non-Christians over a brief delay in the Church’s plan to consecrate female bishops, and also about a relaxation of the rules governing homosexuality in the priesthood. This will soon produce our first openly homosexual prelate, and will inevitably lead in time to lesbian bishops, perhaps married to each other.
Each week that passes, the official abandonment of heterosexual marriage as an ideal reaches higher into the establishment and the culture. Our deputy prime minister, Nicholas Clegg (an atheist married to a Roman Catholic), recently declared that marriage was outmoded and that “we need to get away from the idea that there is something on a piece of paper that says if you are married, that’s good, if you’re not married, that’s not.” He speaks for many in our London-centered governing class, though possibly not for Mrs. Clegg, whose views we do not know. We also do not know if he speaks for the homosexuals who have been clamoring (not especially loudly) for the freedom to wed. But this is also a cultural and moral campaign against the standards of the past, not a practical one. There is no significant legal distinction between the rights conferred by a civil partnership and those of a marriage. The main difference is a matter of language.
Now into this entanglement steps Mr. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister of a Liberal-Conservative coalition government. It is one of the problems of explaining British democracy to Americans that our political parties, unlike yours, have names that appear to mean something. So you might think that a Liberal-Conservative coalition (in which the Conservatives were the majority) would be a rather awkward, fractious sort of thing. It isn’t really, because all our parties (including the one confusingly called “Labour”) are in fact liberal. So it is really a Liberal-Liberal coalition.
This arrangement may seem unjust. Surely, if the “Conservatives” are liberal, wouldn’t it be fairer if the “Liberals” were conservative? No such luck. The sad fact is that Britain does not really have a conservative political party at all, just a bemused rump of not-very-bright, rather flaccid Conservative members of Parliament, who protest in a disorganized, mumbling way when the “Conservative” Party once again adopts and pursues left-liberal policies. These people, like many Conservative voters, fail to discern a pattern in this. They would fail to discern a pattern in a chessboard or a tartan.
But let us go back to Mr. Cameron. Some years ago, an expedition was sent out to discover if Mr. Cameron has any actual opinions, and its members came back haggard and gray, shaking their heads sadly. He has stated opinions in the past. But in many cases he does not have those opinions anymore. And who knows how long the opinions he now professes will endure? What we do know is that he has now embraced the idea that same-sex marriage is fundamentally conservative, and he says he supports it, not in spite of being a Conservative, but because he is one.
For reasons no one is entirely sure about, he recently convulsed Westminster by proposing a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. None of the major parties had put such a plan in its manifesto. There was no great demand for it. A large part of the Conservative Party’s aging and demoralized membership was viscerally hostile, and rather bemused. But on a nonpartisan vote, the House of Commons now has a built-in left-wing majority on social issues, and the opponents of the change were bulldozed to one side.
Some say Mr. Cameron was acting under pressure from European institutions, and there is evidence for this. But there is another more urgent explanation: The prime minister knows his Conservative Party will lose the next election, probably quite badly. They have just suffered a spectacular setback in a special election in a Southern constituency, beaten into third place by the previously laughable Ukay Independence Party (UKIP). Cameron’s great task in life has been to exterminate or drive away the remaining socially and culturally conservative elements in that party, so as to expel them from the UK’s mainstream politics altogether. What better way than same-sex marriage to lure these puzzled old persons into the open, humiliate them, and then blame them, as reactionary dinosaurs, for the electoral defeat that is coming anyway?
That’s my explanation, and I’m sticking to it. Meanwhile our streets grow more lawless daily, our education system is a grim joke, and our economy is so far down the plumbing that I wonder whether we will ever be able to fish it out again.