Understanding Society: The key to stability

By JubileeCentre 07 Apr 2011

by John Hayward

Questioned last week about whether his decision to get married is a political one, Ed Miliband insisted that, 'what people care about in this country is people having stable families.' This answer reveals a disturbing failure by the leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition to understand two crucial facts that fresh research by Jubilee Centre to be published in the coming weeks makes increasingly plain: firstly, that marriage is always political, for it has huge social and economic ramifications; and secondly, that all other forms of relationship offer families far less stability than marriage.

Building on past research by the Jubilee Centre into cohabitation trends, our current study analyses data from the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER)'s Understanding Society survey of 100,000 individuals in 40,000 British households. Perhaps the most startling new insight is the impact of previous cohabitation on the stability of families. Thus, someone who has previously cohabited with someone other than their spouse is at almost fifty percent greater risk of divorce than someone who does not cohabit before they get married. Even if someone cohabits only with the person who they go on to marry, they are at fifteen per cent greater risk of divorce, as shown in the following chart.

We should therefore be asking serious questions when we read the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics that show the number of people who got married in England and Wales in 2009 (just 231,490) was the lowest since 1895. Even more worryingly, taking account of changes in the size of the unmarried adult population and the existing number of marriages, the general marriage rate has plummeted to its lowest since it was first calculated in 1862: Just 21.3 men per 1,000 unmarried men aged 16 and over took the step of lifelong commitment in 2009, and 19.2 women per 1,000 unmarried women. This represents a significant deterioration in social cohesion of 25-30 percent over the ten years since 1999, when the rates stood at 30.1 for men and 25.8 for women.

This trend confirms other past research by the Jubilee Centre showing that other broader measures of marriage, such as the proportion of adults married and the proportion of children born to married parents, have dropped by more than 40 percent over the last 40 years. As we have noted before, marriage is as important as the economy to the nation’s overall health because families lie at the heart of every local community.

In thinking of Ed Miliband's dismissal of his forthcoming wedding as a purely personal decision, I am reminded of the scene from Fiddler on the Roof when Perchik proposes to Hodel: As he is about to head off and join the revolution in Kiev, he says he wants to discuss a political question with her, 'the question of marriage.' Confused, she asks, 'Is this a political question?' 'Well, yes,' he retorts, 'Everything's political!'



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