In the first of his two stints as Home Secretary during the mid-60s, Roy Jenkins oversaw perhaps the greatest reform to some of England’s most antiquated laws than any other person to hold that post in living memory – the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion, the abolition of the death penalty, and much-needed upgrading of the complex process surrounding divorce. Right-wing revisionists might like to lay the blame of the ‘Permissive Society’ and its subsequent social fallout at his door, but society had already changed even before Jenkins kick-started legislation to reflect the shift in mores. Of all the reforms Jenkins oversaw, perhaps the most historically neglected is the one concerning the dissolution of marriage. In some respects, I only wish he’d gone further and outlawed the whole rotten institution.
I admit I’m a biased cynic on the subject and this is a wholly subjective piece as well as an extremely cynical one. Please accept my apologies. I had to attend a lot of family and non-family weddings as a child and I yawned my way them all, even if attendance gained me a welcome day off school. And now your humble narrator has been named as co-respondent in a divorce case – well, I’m not actually named as such; I am ‘Mr X’, the wicked seducer in the cock-eyes of the law; and the law is a ass, as someone once famously observed. Actually, I bloody well wish said accuser would name me; what an addition to one’s Outlaw CV that would be! I demand to be named! Instead, I have to settle for anonymity and being a bystander in a case that needed instigating, even if it has been instigated on an utterly farcical premise that enables the accuser to maintain the moral high-ground.
If it can be said to end in farce, the beginning is no better. There may have been a little fashionable tweaking to the old ceremonial aspect of the union, but it essentially remains an archaic and outdated ritual that has no basis in the life to follow. Like Christmas Day, a wedding belongs to a fantasy industry that various parties with a vested interest in its continuation act as brainwashing cheerleaders for. Loathsome celebrity couples with more money than taste have served to promote it to a new generation of deluded little Disney princesses raised on a diet of Bridget Jones bollocks, though the inevitable nasty divorce that is the natural climax of the ill-matched marriage is something the starry-eyed in love with the theatre of the event always choose to turn a blind eye to.
The idea of a woman as a possession of the father that he then hands over ownership of to the husband is a ludicrous anachronism in this day and age, and has been for decades; yet still, even in Twenty-bloody-Sixteen, there has to be the father (or the next best thing) surrendering his property in a laughable mock-legal transaction. It may be chic for the condemned to now insert their own sappy vows in place of the official spiel, but beyond the day they’re uttered before an audience, their relevance is akin to a fading suntan two weeks after the return from an overseas holiday. But, hey, let’s not quibble over irrelevancies. Mum gets to wear her new hat and call on the Kleenex when the ceremony reaches its gut-wrenching apogee, and the local church is able to pay for the new roof as a consequence of hosting endless gatherings of this nature that are crammed with people who wouldn’t be seen within half-a-mile of the venue come Evensong. And let’s not forget there’s always the reception, the entertainment value of which consists of an aunt who drinks too much and an uncle who fondles a bridesmaid; and everyone plays their allocated part in a badly-scripted sitcom that should have been cancelled forty years before.
However, if one can just about stomach the OTT frivolity of the ceremony when two become one, what comes next is just as meaningless and has little to do with love; the breeding machine for the future society is switched-on and the wife endures ongoing physical traumas in order that the post-nuclear family can keep buggering on with its 2.4 children. The statistics regarding divorce demonstrate how futile an institution marriage really is – 42% of them in Britain end in divorce; and whilst divorce levels are currently at their lowest for 40 years, the failure rate remains high and the likelihood of a marriage lasting until one of the spouses passes away in old age is fairly rare these days, certainly since couples no longer have to be chained to one another till death do them part.
Before the reforms Roy Jenkins oversaw in the 1960s, divorce went through various stages of complicated legal and moral changes; indeed, until the middle of the nineteenth century it was the exclusive province of the Church of England and Parliament – an expensive and protracted process undertaken not by barristers, but by civil law advocates and proctors in Doctors’ Commons; an annulment required an Act of Parliament, which restricted divorce to the wealthy, if they were prepared to weather the scandal as their most intimate marital details were discussed in the House.
Anyone familiar with Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ will recall the agony of the working-class character Stephen Blackpool, whose estranged alcoholic wife walks back into his life and he cannot rid himself of her or marry the woman he loves until his parasitic spouse dies. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 at least made the process easier for women, even if the ridiculous employment of private detectives to prove infidelity kept divorce in the realm of the absurd; and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – a direct result of Jenkins’ reforms – democratised it considerably. A marriage could be now dissolved after three years; the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 reduced that period to twelve months.
I find it hard to understand why anyone would feel the need to adhere to an irrelevance like marriage in 2016 when the old stigma of ‘living in sin’ has been mercifully consigned to history. The only question that passed through my mind when gay marriage was the hot topic keeping the classes chattering was ‘Why do gay couples even want to buy into this heterosexual museum piece?’
When the inevitable separation and eventual divorce comes, the legal minefield it opens up (and the pound signs it sparks in the eyes of solicitors) drags on and on to the point whereby both weary parties must find it hard to recall why on earth they bothered in the first place. Add children to the equation and you may as well look upon a marriage contract as a death warrant. The woman I stand accused of conspiring with in order to douse a deceased marriage in the flammable liquid of adultery will be free again one day, but until the day actually arrives the legacy of the tumour upon individual freedom that marriage represents will remain an impediment to that freedom. It is not ‘the wife’ who is the ball and chain, but marriage itself.
© The Editor