Following this year's Conservative party conference, it's tempting to think Tory nastiness has reached such heights that worrying about the Married Couples Tax Allowance is akin to fretting over a splinter while someone's hacking off your arm. It’s a piddling thing, isn't it? A mere pinprick compared to the full-on kick in the teeth that is the bedroom tax, the expansion of Workfare or the proposed withdrawal of benefits to all NEETs under 25.
To be sure, it's very much in line with all these other policies, none of them serving any practical purpose other than to comfort those who believe that harsh, capricious punishment creates proof of guilt. As our Prime Minister tells us, the Married Couples Tax Allowance — which won't actually benefit most married couples — “isn’t about the money but about the message”. That’s not to say it isn’t a very expensive message (the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates it will cost the exchequer around £700 million per year) but can one really put a figure on differentiating the good families from the scum? And besides, it only costs a couple of hundred million more than might be saved through the bedroom tax. Surely forcing people out of their homes, into debt and away from their extended families is a price worth paying in order to privilege those relationships in which “love is love, commitment is commitment” over those in which, apparently, it isn’t?
It is, of course, all about the story, one which has little bearing on real lives. Nobody is going to get married for a tax break that might come their way bit by bit, and no one who’s already resigned themselves to the mess and expense of divorce will change their mind on the basis of this policy (or at least you’d hope). This isn’t about marriage, but about casting vague, unnamed aspersions on individuals and families -- lone parents, unmarried couples, widows and widowers, single people -- and suggesting that somehow, they need to be pressured into choosing a more “successful” way of being. As Cameron slyly informs us, “study after study has shown that families with married couples” (i.e. people who’ve made a formal commitment not to break up) “are less likely to break up” (amazing!) What next? I’d imagine that “study after study” shows us that people with rich parents are more likely to be rich themselves. What about Offspring Of The Rich Tax Allowance? After all, it wouldn’t be about the money, just “sending a message” to people who haven’t realised how beneficial being rich can be.
The Don’t Judge My Family campaign was set up in 2010 with the express purpose of challenging the Marriage Tax Allowance and its aims. I’m particularly drawn to the name, partly because it sounds like something Kat Slater would say (any offshoot group should most definitely be called “And Leave My Mother Aht Of It”), but also for its inclusion of the word “family”. The Tories are a profoundly anti-family party yet a key part of their myth-making involves appropriating words such as “love,” “commitment” and “family” for themselves. Campaign Director Julianne Marriott describes how the strong sense that these words belong to everyone drove her and other founding members to set up the campaign:
“We saw that many of our friends who cohabited seemed just as stable and happy as friends who had married. We, and our friends, had different childhood experiences - parents who had divorced, parents who had died, parents who were happily married, parents who were unhappily married and parents who had never quite got around to marrying each other. This didn't make us judge our friends or their families differently.”
Such straightforward acceptance of difference is, surely, an essential part of appreciating the family as an institution. That is how you support families, not by undermining unmarried and/or single parents, or by ordering jobless people to move away from their loved ones, or by telling wives and husbands that the spouse they spend their lives caring for doesn’t need that extra room. You can’t create pressures which threaten to tear families apart and then pretend you have their best interests at heart because “love is love, commitment is commitment” and actions mean nothing at all. Groups such as Don’t Judge My Family -- currently holding a call for evidence to see how the Government’s “sending a signal” money could be better spent to help parents and children -- recognise this. It’s about time we all held out for something real.
Unfortunately, the stories we’re up against are horribly powerful. As the conference speeches show us, it’s all about creating the right narrative, with goodies and baddies and the illusion that you get to choose which side you’re on when all the while things are done to you over which you have no control. The “good choices” story costs real money, real unity and real self-esteem and offers only fewer choices in return. I find it impossible to believe that anyone in the Tory party thinks increasing the hardship and stigma of being unemployed and/or unmarried somehow makes work and marriage more available. This doesn’t, however, really matter. Hardship and stigma debilitate and silence, creating more space for self-aggrandizing fictions of self-made success.