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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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.