Balloons on the route of San Francisco's Gay Pride parade, 30 June 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny tax breaks for marriage: why should I subsidise other people’s weird lifestyle choices?

There’s no reason anyone should be herded into an archaic arrangement that does not work for everybody.

The right might have lost the battle on gay marriage but its war on sexual freedom isn’t over. In the US, this year’s Pride celebrations have been particularly jubilant as legislation “defending” marriage from those pesky queers was struck down. In Britain, “traditionalists” are furious about David Cameron’s attempt to drag the Conservative Party into the 20th century just as the rest of us leave it behind – so much so, that tax breaks for married couples have been wrestled back on to the policy table.

The world is changing but large numbers of unaccountably powerful people still seem to believe it should be run like a fantasy version of 1950s bourgeois suburbia, all picket fences and patriarchy. The tax allowance being proposed will not benefit every married couple – it is specifically designed to reward and give an incentive to those in which one partner either does no work outside the home or earns very little.

The policy is, in effect, a subsidy for stay-at-home mums. Mothers who have the gall to be unmarried, by contrast, have just had their state support cut still further in the latest Spending Review because this government is more interested in making moral statements than in keeping children out of poverty.

For many traditionalists, marriage isn’t really about love – it’s about money, property and social control. The reason the right to equal marriage for same-sex couples has been so bitterly opposed by these traditionalists is that homosexuals threaten the “sanctity” of the marriage contract and “family values”. The obvious retort – that love between two people of whatever genital arrangement should pose no problems for an institution supposedly grounded on that notion – misunderstands what marriage means to many of the old guard. The idea that it should be based on love, attraction and shared life goals, rather than on principles of property management and hammering people into statesanctioned heterosexual breeding pairs, is a huge threat to the entire set-up.

Traditional marriage of the type that David Cameron now wants to promote has little to do with love and it’s certainly not about sex. Indeed, one thing that may have turned the tide of moderate opinion in favour of allowing homosexual couples to wed might have been the prospect of reducing the amount of gay sex actually taking place.

I’ve heard precisely no sensible arguments against gay marriage from anyone who is serious about treating LGBT people as equal members of society, but, now that we’re agreed on that point, it would be a relief if we could all stop treating marriage as a social panacea. Instead, we should treat it as what it is – a lifestyle choice, just like every other arrangement that diehard defenders of marriage call perversion.

Marriage is now a minority lifestyle choice, which is perhaps a reason why the only social group that has been consistently enthusiastic and tolerant about the practice in the past decade has been LGBT people.

In Britain, as singles and lone parents continue to rise in number, only 47 per cent of households are headed by a married couple and half of those arrangements will end in divorce. Giving tax breaks to married couples amounts to getting the rest of us hard-working singletons, swingers and livers-in-sin to subsidise these people with their strange habits.

There’s nothing wrong with funding minority cultural practices. Clearly, some people enjoy marriage and some of these people are able to make it work as a permanent arrangement, although it sounds exhausting and involves a lot of intimidating specialist equipment. I only ask that subsidies be distributed fairly. We can chip in for their floral arrangements and bathroom sets, they can pay for our three-person dildos and car-park orgies – and maybe then we can all agree to stump up some proper cash for housing and childcare so no parent finds himself or, more frequently, herself making any sort of sexual bargain in exchange for security.

Like any other fringe sexual practice, marriage is best approached with a full and frank understanding of the dangers involved. Because, unlike with such relatively benign perversions as sadomasochism, there are clear risks, particularly for women, and those risks are borne out by some chilling statistics. Every week, two women are killed by an intimate partner. Making it harder for people to leave such arrangements by financially penalising unmarried individuals – even as domestic violence shelters are closing across the country – is no sane policy.

It’s not that I’m prejudiced. The heart wants what it wants, as do the nether regions, and I’m happy for the many couples I know who enjoy the married lifestyle, just as I am happy for the lizard fetishists and leather queens I have met, all of whom have been perfectly lovely people.

I understand that, for some people, the apex of socio-sexual fulfilment is putting on a far-out frock and promising to love, honour and obey one other person for ever and ever. To me, that sounds like a really kinky set-up with dubious roots in historical sexism and the relegation of women and children to the status of property, but if it works for you, hey, let your freak flag fly. All I ask is that that sort of decadence shouldn’t be enforced or made a condition of financial security, because impressionable young people might get ideas.

Just as there’s no reason why any couple should be denied the right to marry, there’s no reason anyone should be herded into an archaic arrangement that does not work for everybody. My greatest hope for equal marriage is that those who were so worried that it would threaten “traditional family values” will turn out to be absolutely right. In the world, there are many different ways to arrange love between human beings in this world and all of them are of value.


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 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.