Hugo Rifkind

I’ll tell you what really devalues marriage: patronising, preachy little tax breaks

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

The Conservative party is trying to redefine marriage. I can’t believe they think they’re going to get away with this. Throughout human history it has been one thing, which is a loving commitment between two people who want to share a life. Now they’re trying to turn it into something completely different. A tax break.

It wouldn’t benefit me, even though I am married. Although I swear that isn’t the root of my objection. Honest. My wife and I are in the same tax bracket, you see, so sharing our allowance wouldn’t make much difference. What it amounts to, really, is an incentive for one of us to stop working and stay at home. Granted, it would never be much of an incentive. We live in London, after all, and we have two kids, and we’re only journalists. So if the Tories really wanted to incentivise one of us to quit work, then practically speaking we’d have to be looking at a tax break of a healthy five figures here. Whereas this one is only 150 quid.

‘It’s a recognition,’ said Tim Loughton, who is leading the campaign for this. ‘It sends a message.’ Well, I don’t like the message. What’s a party that believes in small government doing sending messages like this anyway? What business is it of the Treasury whether I’m married or not? Or whether anyone is? It’s a blatant attempt at social engineering. And not even a good attempt at social engineering.

‘Married families are more likely to be stable!’ these people shout, knowing full well that this is akin to saying that people who own carts are more likely to own horses. Actually, as ever, it’s completely the other way around. Stable families are more likely to get married. For this intrusive, irritating, preachy proposal to make any sense at all, they’d have to be arguing that the simple act of getting married makes a couple who already have kids more likely to stay together than an utterly identical couple who opt not to bother. And that’s a stupid thing to even try to argue. Ban marriage. Eradicate it. The same couples would stay together, and the same ones would come apart.

Or if they wouldn’t, they should. I’m a fan of marriage, me. I’d recommend it to any couple who fancy a life together, which is more than you could say for those Tories who tried to wreck the equal marriage bill, who were led, wouldn’t you know, by Tim Loughton. But even if you accept that marriage forms a sort of glue for people who would just wander off otherwise and forget they had families at all, what makes this particular glue so much more special than other glues? After all, unaffordable mortgages and shared communicable diseases must both do their bit, too. Right?

Why not get a tax break if you both like watching The X Factor? Why not get one for coming to a bipartisan compromise over the toilet seat? How about tax credits for a chap when he lies about how good his other half’s new shoes look? My kids’ mother had to go to Russia the other day, leaving me with three nights of a teething toddler. Surely there’s a handful of tenners in that. No? What about her letting me go to Glastonbury? Come on. Give her a bung. This is the stuff that keeps a family stable. Marriage? Marriage is something else.

They claim it’s all about kids, but want to give it to married people who don’t even have kids. What? It’s all so dishonest, that’s the thing. ‘If you are a 15-year-old child with both parents at home,’ they say, ‘there is a 97 per cent chance that those two parents are actually married.’ Oh come on. Really? This is the best you can do? Of course there is. Because that’s what people who stay together do. It’s not why they stay together, it’s not their impetus for doing so. It’s a symptom of a life already well on track. A tax break for marriage is a pat on the back for the people who need it the very, very least. How horribly Tory to think that’s a thing worth doing, and at the expense of everybody else.

Glastonbury zoo

Last week, among the many acts to be found at the Glastonbury festival, in order of precedence, were the following: Arctic Monkeys, Jake Bugg, Foals, Tame Impala, Noah and the Whale, Goat, Dinosaur Jr, Cat Power, Stealing Sheep, Frightened Rabbit, Dog Is Dead, Jaguar Ma, Phoenix, the Bootleg Beatles, Birdie Jackson, Oysterband, Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs, -Penguin Cafe, MadDog Mcrea, Simian Mobile Disco, Kitten and the Hip, Monkey Pilot, Dog Blood, Gold Panda, Charlie Sloth, Dinosaurs, Zebra Katz, Monki, Danny Byrd, Mullet Bitch, Bite the Buffalo, Camp Stag, Two Jackals, Lekkido Lord of the Lobsters, True Tiger, DJ El Cat, Black Kat Boppers, Kitty Bang…

I’ve stopped there. I’m only halfway down the programme, but I feel I may be boring you. But this is remarkable, right? I mean, isn’t it? Am I really the only person who thinks this? ‘Look!’ I kept saying to passing music critics, all weekend, sometimes in so much excitement that I’d even put down my drink. ‘All the bands are named after animals!’ And they’d just smile nervously, and edge away. Talk about missing the big story.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Cymrugel

    Well it might not mean much to you Hugo, but I am pretty sure it would be a good thing for a lot of other people who are – how shall I put it – not blessed with your comfortable level of income. Last time I looked the average wage was about £16000pa. How does that compare?

    When I left uni in the 1980s married couples got an additional allowance each, which could be transferred to the other partner, an allowance to set against their mortgages and allowances for each child. This has all been systematically stripped away and we now get absolutely zilch.

    We are about the only west European country that gives no tax breaks at all to married couples, which are essentially the baseline unit of our society and are by and large bringing up the next generation of people.
    Essentially the majority have been squeezed to provide more for those who are already well off.

    Meanwhile there are breaks galore for business men, entrepreneurs and all manner of self employed bods who are doing very nicely thank you very much and largely contribute as little as they possibly can to the public purse.
    I’d say you need to take a look at your sense of priorities. You are well heeled, well settled and I doubt if you have ever had to worry about paying a bill in your life.
    The rest of us are not so fortunate.

    • Hugo Rifkind

      Yes, yes, aren’t I terribly sheltered etc. But you’re missing the point. Yes, £150 a year would be very helpful for lots of people. Some of these people are married. By virtue of being married, they probably already have more comfortable lives than the ones who aren’t, given that marriage is such a good indicator of stability and all the rest. So why help them at the expense of everybody else?

      And ANYWAY, this isn’t designed to help those on low incomes. It’s designed to help couples in which there is a disparity of incomes. A couple in which both husband and wife earned £13k wouldn’t get a penny. What’s the point in that?

      • Baron

        What a patronising reply, young Rifkind, and what a pompously fustian take on both the institution of marriage (throughout history it wasn’t a commitment beyween two people who wanted to share life together, but a commitment between a man and a woman who shared life together for the sake of their offspring, you tosser) and the system of allowances Cymrugel was talking about. Only after you get a taste of the real struggle in life you should preach to us about it.

        • Hugo Rifkind

          You feel the “real struggle in life” is greater for the married than the unmarried? Why?

          • Baron

            No, not at all, only that people with money must find the struggle easier.

            Also, apologies for the name calling, it seems the barbarian from the East can type quicker that he can think.

        • StephanieJCW

          but a commitment between a man and a woman who shared life together for the sake of their offspring, you tosser)

          Throughout history? You mean even when it was just about uniting familes? Power and privilege and between one man and many women? (And in some historical societies not even restricted to members of the opposite sex)

          And even if it used to be about what you say it is – the fact is it isn’t, and hasn’t been for sometime. For the vast majority of married couples it’s about commitment. Otherwise the elderly and those with no plans to procreate would not marry. But they do.

          Incidentally – what is the “real struggle” in life?

          • Baron

            Stephanie, you wrong.

            It may be stating the bleeding obvious: sex is, has alwyas been, will always be not for the expression of love, admiration, life lasting commitment, the earth shattering jolt of joy or any such thing, but for one and one purpose only – procreation. However, human sex, the way it was set up, wouldn’t have worked, it couldn’t have worked if it were not accompanies by such trappings like love, commitment…. the long gestation period, the need to look after the offspring for years required them, the short and longer lasting accessories of sex were a must if humans, as they first appeared, had to have any chance of continuing the species. Food wasn’t delivered by supermarkets, safety didn’t come courtesy of la agencies.

            Marriage, when it hit the market as a societal construct merely cemented, publicly wrapped up what Nature (or Him if you prefer) constructed in the first place – a sexual bonding, a chance of it, of a man and a woman for the purpose of conceiving and bringing up a new generation of our species.

            Tw, three, four sisters may be committed to each other beyond the grave, mother may love her son, farther his daughter, two men may be willing to die for each other, but no society ever has allowed for any such expression of emotions to be sufficient grounds to form a marriage unit. Over millennia accumulated know how has furnished the evidence – for the big numbers, no coupling other than that between a man and a woman can ensure the best outcome for procreation. Today’s research confirms it, still.

            Our equating gay marriage with that of a heterosexual couple essentially says we have not only de-coupled sex for procreation from sex for pleasure, but ranked both of the same value to the society. This, Stephanie, can never be.

            Also, what is the real struggle? Trying to send a posting from an area with abysmal wi-fi connection, hence the delay, sorry.

          • StephanieJCW

            “sex is, has alwyas been, will always be not for the expression of love, admiration, life lasting commitment, the earth shattering jolt of joy or any such thing, but for one and one purpose only – procreation.”

            I’ve never had sex for procreation. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

          • Baron

            Some thirty years ago there was alot of rejoicing and dancing in the streets when the scientists told us ‘malaria’s eradicated, we’ve killed the killer of the millions’. Today, as you may have noticed, plasmodium falciparum and its friends are back, re-grouped just as ready to inflict pain and suffering on the millions as before.

            Nature, Stephanie, happens to be by far more powerful to get hurt by anything we humans can throw at its design. It doesn’t seem to respond to our whims, wishes and appetites kindly if the interference goes too far. In our arrogance we think we can stop procreation with the pill, abortions and stuff.

            Well, only the future will tell us who’s right, you or Baron.

          • Peter Bensley

            >Some thirty years ago there was alot of rejoicing and dancing in the streets when the scientists told us ‘malaria’s eradicated, we’ve killed the killer of the millions’.

            It seems unlikely that scientists said any such thing, given that there has not been a single year (since before 1980) in which Malaria killed fewer than 200,000 people.

            >Well, only the future will tell us who’s right, you or Baron.

            Nah I’m pretty certain we can tell right now: It’s Stephanie.

          • Jethro Asquith

            But the only reason you are able to procreate is because you have evolved to do so for the purpose of procreation

          • Fergus Pickering

            Haven’t you, Stephanie? You poor old thing..

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Recreation or procreation?

          • Peter Bensley

            Sex is not teleological. It has no inherent purpose. It is effective at allowing organisms with sexual characteristics to reproduce; being good at reproducing leads to more such organisms existing.

            Similarly, you might find a rock that happens to have the shape of a hammer, and use it to hammer nails, but hammering nails is not the purpose of that rock, except to the extent that you have assigned it that purpose.

            You might take a cast of that rock and use it to cast iron hammers, but even these, though they have been created by you to hammer nails, only have that purpose to the extent that you assign it to them. Another person might use one of your hammers as a weapon, a doorstop, or a grappling hook, but none of these purposes, including yours, can be inherent to the hammer itself. The only relevant quality of the hammer itself is whether it is well-suited to these purposes.

            Sex is well-suited to reproduction. It is also well-suited to the creation of pair bonds and the experience of pleasure. When assigned as purposes to sex, these are not only equal – it is impossible to place one above the other, except within the context of the value structure of an intelligent being.

            If there is a god, he would be such a being and could certainly have an opinion on the matter. He may intend sex to be primarily for procreation; he may believe, on the other hand, that its very highest purpose is the deepening and perpetuation of love through pair-bonding. But even divine intent cannot create inherent purpose: Only intended purpose, and any other being could choose to intend differently.

            If there is no intelligent creator of sex, then the purpose of sex is entirely a matter of opinion.

            You’re right that sex for pleasure cannot have the same value as sex for procreation. After all, we have several ways of inducing pregnancy without resorting to sexual intercourse, so if intercourse became useless for procreation we would not become extinct. If all sexual pleasure were abruptly lost, the effects on society would be far more deleterious.

      • Cymrugel

        You really need to get out more Hugo.
        I know its fun writing in the Spectator, Times etc, where everyone is public school and Oxbridge or a reasonable facsimile thereof and everyone else is a dreadful oik, but its not the reality most people face.
        You are a pretty good writer, but you never really step outside your comfort zone and seem to have little perception of how most people live.
        I suggest that you try researching a few subjects and talking to a few people that you wouldn’t normally be in contact with.
        No need to find some Hobbesian nightmare of a council estate and chat with the junkies; in fact that would be counter productive. Just try finding out a bit more about reality as lived by the average Brit – and how much difference a few tax breaks would make for the average couple.

        • Rockin Ron

          Couldn’t agree more, apart from he is not a good writer. He is an adequate writer in an age of inanity, who probably only got this role because of his connections.

        • Hugo Rifkind

          Well, thank you for the compliment. Personally I’m a little weary of people who live comfortable, monocultural lives in areas relatively devoid of poverty, crime or social division telling me that I’m the one who ought to leave my comfort zone. But maybe you aren’t one of those people.

          Either way, let me politely remind you which one of us is arguing that a tax break ought not to only benefit the less needy, at the expense of the more needy. Clue: it’s not you.

          • Fergus Pickering

            You can do as you like, Hugo. It’s what you write that troubles us. Engage brain a little more often perhaps?

        • StephanieJCW

          I am sure tax breaks would make a great difference to couples. They would make a big difference to single people too. So why reserve them for married couples?

      • Rockin Ron

        I think you are the one missing the point, Hugo. You are living a privileged, entitled life and so can pontificate without any sense of the reality of most people’s experience.

        • Hugo Rifkind

          Yes, that’s definitely the important point here.

          • Rockin Ron

            It is, because it informs your limited and gilded worldview. Glad you agree.

          • Ben Kelly

            I think the important point is really that this is nothing more than a token gesture and an attempt by Cameron, oily salesman that he is, to appear as if he is actually a conservative. The real problem with the weakened institution of marriage is that it is easier to get divorced than it is to get out of a phone contract or car lease. You can make a marriage and break one as flippantly as you like; which actually leads to people making this commitment flippantly. Marriage then, is not treated with the respect it deserves.

            You seem rather sneering at the idea of marriage being encouraged and thought of as a better arrangement for a family, I believe this to be a folly (and if you truly thought like that, would you have got married yourself, really?) Yes, yes, you said ‘i’m a fan of marriage me’, but then go on to repeatedly question what is so special about and blahdy blah, it is the most stable foundation for a family to be built and for children to be nurtured. Marriage SHOULD be a commitment that acts a stronger glue and makes people more likely to stay together, and should be strengthened by making it easir to break. I don’t mean a return to a stigmatising of divorce, but should it be done so flippantly and a divorce be handed out like fast food? These are the kind of issues that are more important than a hundred quid or so a year token gesture. That said, a tax break isn’t going to do any harm and encouraging marriage is better than incentivising single parent families which the benefit system has been doing for years.

            Also, why do people read the Spectator, and then counter the opinions of columnists by saying ‘yeah but you live in wine and cheeseville in London you pompous pr**k’ etc. What were they expecting from the Spectator columnists, the common man? Go over to the New Statesman were Oxford educated perpetually adolescents latte socialists try desperately to act in touch with the ‘masses’ if you want to feel truly nauseous, then come back here where at least the columnists are self aware most of the time.

            Right Hugo? You toff wanker etc.

          • Ripple

            I think you’re mistaken about the ease of divorce. I’ve known several divorced people and they all say that it’s arduous, unpleasant, and costly. Standards of living for both partners (and children, if any) immediately drop. It may be easy to file a petition; it’s not generally easy to go through the process, especially if the parties aren’t willing to agree to terms, reasonably.

      • Ben Kelly

        A good way of strengthening marriage would be to make it more appealing, e.g. not make a divorce court a dressing down and financial raping of men. Taking men to the cleaners, giving them a Saturday morning’s access to the kids, always taking the woman’s side etc. Not a great incentive to marry.

    • StephanieJCW

      The median salary is above 16,000.

      Although this does nothing to help those people. This transferable tax allowance will only help those in a traditional homemaker / breadwinner set-up. If you aren’t then tough beans.

      And I cannot agree with a tax allowance designed to help those with children…when it doesn’t. Unmarried parents with children get nothing. Married people without children (where one doesn’t work) get a tax allowance.

      It makes no sense.

      • Alexsandr

        what about 1 working, 1 retired. or 1 working one disabled, or 1 working, one caring for a disabled child or ageing parent(s). Not all stay at homes are idle or wiping babies bottoms.

      • serguei_p

        Recent change to the rules on Child Benefit was completely opposite – it took money from those who were in a “traditional setup”.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Unmarried parents with children? Go marry. It’s a bribe to make you virtuous..And a jolly good thing too.

  • PhilipWalker

    There is a good argument for transferable tax allowances: it is found in the fact that much of the relevant part of the benefits system is household-based. (Even more so since Osborne’s ill-founded attempt to cut child benefit to higher earners.) The system one would then have to propose revolves around whether people form a household unit, and if so then we tax-and-benefit them on the basis of that single household unit. Of course, this is in fact a completely different proposal from the one the social authoritarians are making.

  • alistaircunningham

    The simplest way that they could offer a benefit to married (and indeed unmarried couples) is to abolish the absurdly complex and difficult to police High Income Child Benefit charge. This tax penalises families (like mine) which has a higher earner, and a stay at home mum. The perverse effect is an individual earning £60k pays a higher marginal rate than two earning £30k (or indeed two earning £50k! – a total household income of £100k)

  • serguei_p

    The State takes into account the fact of people living together when
    they decide who deserves benefits (everything means-tested relies on
    total couple’s income).

    It is only logical if the State would do the same when they decide to tax people.

    Unfortunately the State always makes rules in its own favour….

  • YesWeCanFlyDrones

    Surely it has been obvious for a long time that every aspect of people’s lives is regarded by the government as just another opportunity for taxation?

    • Fergus Pickering

      Bu this is a tax break i.e. less tax.

  • rtj1211

    ‘Marriage is a financial estate, not to be entered into without a Pre-Nuptial agreement. It is the estate for the creation of children, which is why tax breaks for children is better than tax breaks for marriage. It is also the estate for monogamists or those happy to negotiate looser arrangements, since in the main we aren’t Muslims, Mormons or any other polygamous cult in this country. Marriage is a bloody awful liability for parents and a jolly nice start for the happy couple what with all those presents, what ho!’

    Now do you think that sums up the cynical approach to marriage we’ve had since the loadsamoney 1980s?!

  • HookesLaw

    ‘I’ll tell you what really devalues marriage: patronising, preachy little tax breaks’ — Don’t talk rubbish.

  • iancummings

    “Last time I looked the average wage was about £16000pa. ”
    you need to look again… unless you’re including part time workers, I can’t find a figure less than about £26k

    • Fergus Pickering

      The average wage is £26K? Not in my neck of the woods it ain’t.That’s impoverished East Kent.

      • iancummings

        Obviously the figure doesn’t apply everywhere, that’s why it’s an average of the country and over age groups and men/women etc.

  • iancummings

    it’s very depressing to see so many people attacking the messenger and not the message, I thought the spectator was above that but maybe not.

  • Eddie

    Surely those who selfishly breed in an overpopulated world should pay MORE tax, not less – and that goes for all those with 2nd homes when many people cannot afford one (due to govt policy, mass immigration etc)?
    Re Marriage – why would any sane man get married these days, excepting religious persons. Any man who does needs his head read – a divorce can be no fault and the wife almost always gets 70% of the assets, keeps the house and kids, gets a massive wedge of pension and even future earnings!
    I would have warned girls off marriage 50 years ago and told them to get an education and means to earn an independent income first.
    These days, my warning would be for boys alone.

  • nonsequiturcouk

    ” Throughout human history it has been one thing, which is a loving commitment between two people who want to share a life”


  • serguei_p

    When people are assessed for benefits, the income of their spouses is taken into consideration. Why not then to allow to transfer the tax allowance from a person who earns less to the person who earns more?

  • Allow me to recommend a short course of Jeremy Kyle to see how for many people today a totally new morality has come to pass.
    Or is it just the old Adam emerging from the swamp?

  • Fergus Pickering

    Preachy tax breaks? Love ’em. You can preach to me all you like if you give me the money. But I don’t think there’s any for you, Rifkind. Hard cheese, old boy.

    • dmitri the impostor

      Ferg, me old nodding donkey! What are you doing posting on a three month old thread? And why won’t Hugo get any? Are you saying he’s thrown his lot in with a blow-up doll?

  • Alan Braggins

    > Throughout human history it has been one thing, which is a loving commitment between two people who want to share a life.

    I’m pretty sure that for much of human history, marriage has included political or family alliances that the couple involved have had little or no say in. Not that that makes the Tories any less patronizing.

  • Barry

    if you are willing to use money to improve your life’s enjoyment and quick to keep trash distractions at a zero, Money is the number one life changer.

  • Andrew Kennedy

    It would be somthing to have a level playing field, rather bthan the present system which pays parents to split up or lie about living together.The simplest and fairest arrrangement would be to allow married couples to transfer their tax allowances freely between them. If it really is ‘just a bit of paper’ then what’s the problem?

  • John Smith

    I am not so sure. What you say may be correct around the London chattering classes.
    Up & down the country good people support the idea of people exhibiting the right behaviours keeping more of their earned income.

  • Ripple

    between two people who want to share a life.

    No: between two people, one man and one woman, who want to share a life. There: fixed it for you.

    Now they’re trying to turn it into something completely different

    Exactly, which is why we needed the above fix.