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Laurie Penny: this divorce tax is emotional terrorism

Persuading poor people to stay married eases the strain on housing stocks and provides a modesty slip for inequality.

The denial of compassion is big business for this government. Under the coming austerity package, which includes a de facto large tax break for bankers, single mothers will be punished more than any other group in society, save those with severe disabilities. Roll that sentence around your mouth and see how bitter it tastes.

This month, expected plans by the Tories to charge separating couples to use the Child Support Agency - essentially a divorce tax for parents - have hit the news. Put this in the context of tax credits and housing benefit cuts that will force many single mothers out of their homes and leave hundreds of thousands more in penury, the removal of legal aid services that allow women to leave abusive husbands without threatening their children's safety, and cuts to front-line public services that will leave more than a million women jobless, and it is hard not to see the scheme as an attack on women dressed up in the bad, Thatcherite drag of think-of-the-children-ism.

What the coalition has just done has made it all but illegal for women earning much under £25,000 a year to leave their husbands. Why? Because it wilfully misunderstands the purpose of the welfare state. In The Pinch, written at the height of Tory propagandising against single and working mothers, David Willetts, who is now a cabinet minister, laments: "A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men."

This is untrue. The welfare state was brokered at a time of high employment when many women were raising children alone because of wartime bereavement. It was there to protect women, working unpaid, from destitution, and was later expanded to allow women with children the option of independence from men. That painfully won independence has just been kneecapped.

Think of the children

The line we are usually spun is that marriage is good for kids, but anyone who grew up with parents guilt-tripped into staying together "for the sake of the children" will understand why decades of research has failed to prove any causative, rather than correlative, link between parents staying married and children growing up happy. The notion that marriage, which only ceased to be understood as a deal to protect property within the past century, magically creates loving relationships through the power of a legally binding document is just propaganda.

Furthermore, it's quite possible that couples forced to stick together because of the financial threat of this new divorce tax might not go on to create a happy little house on the prairie together.

None of this matters to the coalition. The real reason behind the government's crusade to "recognise marriage in the tax system" is breathtakingly cynical: it's about saving money. Persuading poor people to stay married eases the strain on housing stocks and provides a modesty slip for rising inequality; rich couples can still divorce as they please.

This financial intimidation of women with families has nothing to do with the welfare of children and less still to do with "family values". It is a simple cash-grab, dressed up in the language of moral manipulation. This intimate micromanagement of the personal relationships of the poor is a shameless about-face for a party that accused Labour of instituting a nanny state.

The sheer hypocrisy of withdrawing welfare only to shrink the state small enough to fit into people's bedrooms, and the cruelty of playing on women's guilty fear of being bad parents in order to force them to swallow Thatcherite benefit cuts have nothing to do with child welfare.

It's emotional terrorism, and any government should be above it.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks

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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State