The Marriage Tax Allowance is an expensive way of harnessing resentment and feelings of superiority

David Cameron's proposed tax break for married couples is an expensive way of saying that some people's lives are better than others.

Marriage is not about church bells and white dresses. It’s not even about love. It’s a public statement and a political act, regardless of whether you stage a five-star blow-out wedding reception or settle for the registry office, two witnesses and a bus ride home.

You don’t have to wear a ring. You don’t have to change your name. You don’t have to swear to honour and obey. In fact, if you’ve been living together before you married, there’s basically nothing you have to do that’s any different to before. If you’re a woman, you can carry on using the title Ms and get precisely the same level of half-hearted derision that you got before. You don’t even need to use the words “husband” and “wife” (although people will then think that in using the word “partner” you’re practising some ill-defined form of deception). Life goes on as it did before. Relationships don’t become harder or more morally edifying. Nevertheless, what you think you’ve got – legal formalisation of a union – and what you’ve actually got – involuntary membership of the Superior Relationships Club – are two different things. You and the rest of your family unit will be co-opted into the next Tory Party Conference speech as statistical proof of “what works”  before the registry ink’s gone dry.

Opposition to same-sex marriage has demonstrated the passion with which certain groups view marriage not just as a personal commitment, but as an endorsement of one very particular type of family unit. Their circular argument (man + woman = marriage because marriage = man + woman) is both mind-numbing and deeply dishonest. Bigoted value judgments shouldn’t hide behind claims to linguistic purity. Yet even those who are not opposed to same-sex marriage can end up privileging an institution which is exclusive and culturally oppressive. The same circularity that governs same-sex marriage opposition governs pro-marriage rhetoric (married people are more likely to stay together because people who are more likely to stay together get married). All the same, it’s got to be worth it for an extra £150 a year, right?

Before we all rush to the altar perhaps the most important thing to remember about David Cameron’s proposed tax breaks for married couples is that they’re not actually for married couples. Transferable tax breaks work for a certain type of married couple, in which one person – ooh, let’s say he’s the man – earns more than the other – hey, she could be the woman, possibly at home with the kids. I’m not suggesting this type of couple is worse than any other, nor that it’s not possible for a couple with a different domestic set-up to still benefit from the proposal. But let’s be honest: this isn’t a benefit for married couples, it’s a message, and an expensive one at that. It says “married couples are better, and especially these ones”. It has little to do with care or need, still less with supporting children. It’s another way of harnessing resentment, disapproval and feelings of superiority. This government might be woeful at managing the economy but they’re masters at manipulating the worst impulses of our lesser selves.

Last week George Osborne announced that lone parents with children aged three or four would be obliged to “prepare for work”. On the face of it it’s confusing. Stay-at-home parents rock as long as they are married to working spouses. Working parents deserve tax breaks as long as they have stay-at-home spouses. Parents who are both earning, married or unmarried, won’t get tax breaks but will get frog-marched into the “hardworking families” category (where you’re allowed to feel bitter, as long as you remember to blame the poor). Single parents, meanwhile, regardless of whether or not they’ve been married – regardless of their beliefs about marriage, and regardless of the consequences they may have otherwise suffered by staying in a damaging relationship – are left to struggle alone. I don’t know, perhaps if the rest of us concentrate hard enough the sheer force of our disapproval will raise up wonder spouses from the mystic reals of 1950s Conservatoria. But then again maybe we shouldn’t try too hard. After all, who would we be able to feel superior to then?

Now find out why Eleanor Margolis wants "a gigantic, champagne-drenched, public celebration of same-sex love".

 

Not everyone's marriage looks like this. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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