Clegg repeats Lib Dem opposition about tax breaks for marriage, with added 1950s jibe

Via the BBC:

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has said the idea of tax breaks for married couples is wrong, and would not work.

The deputy prime minister told Sky News there were “philosophical differences” with the Lib Dems’ coalition partners, the Conservatives, over the issue.

He said there was a limit on what the state “should seek to do in organising people’s private relationships”…

Mr Clegg told the Dermot Murnaghan programme he was in favour of marriage, but said children “thrived best when they see their parents happy together”, whether they were married or not.

He said that he did not think the state offering people “20 quid back would make much difference to people’s decisions” on whether or not to get married…

“We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the 1950s model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, home-making mother – and try and preserve it in aspic,” he will reportedly tell the Demos think-tank.

“That’s why open society liberals and big society conservatives will take a different view on a tax break for marriage.”

In addition to the importance substance of the issue, messaging Kremlinologists will note the open espousal of a difference in policy between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. Policy-wise, this isn’t the 1950s; messaging-wise, this isn’t 2010.

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  • Richard Swales 18th Dec '11 - 8:38pm

    I think it needs to be made clear whether we are talking about giving a random bonus to married couples as a whole in order to discourage people from “living in sin”, or just about equalising the tax position of married couples who have unevenly distributed income with that of couples who have evenly distributed income.
    At the moment in the UK, a couple with the suitwearing breadwinner on 30 grand and the housewife at home with young kids, pays more income tax than the couple (perhaps now with older kids) on 15 grand each – even though both couples have the same total income. In many countries (including Slovakia and Spain) married couples can share their tax allowances.
    In the UK the government is happy to count married couples as a unit (and say no) when one is unemployed and asking for benefits and the other is working. Tax should be the same.

  • In light of the post yesterday (Jeremy Browne: absolutely right) and your ongoing campaign to get Lib Dems to talk in a language that us normal folk understand, I have to wonder about “Open Society”. I dread to think what your opponents will make of it.

    Also, Jeremy Browne warned about becoming “defined by a relatively small set of issues “, mentioning AV and the EU. Are you now going to find anti-marriage tagged onto that as well?

  • Richard Swales 18th Dec '11 - 11:34pm

    @ Stephen do you mean it’s the first or second?
    @ jedibeeftrix you mean you are happy to support the UK-status quo position, or the position of changing the system to allowing pooling tax allowances?

    I note that the Tories don’t seem to care much about the marriage penalty in terms of how it affects benefit entitlements.

  • @Dave Page

    “Surely if you keep tacking issues on to a small set, eventually it becomes a large set? ”

    Absolutely 😀 I just thought it would be more sensible not to just keep tacking on small issues that make you easy targets 😉 At least the one this morning (Lords reform) should go down better.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Dec '11 - 12:39pm

    Dave Page: “Surely if you keep tacking issues on to a small set, eventually it becomes a large set? ”
    Isn’t this site pointy-headed enough without inviting a philosophical debate on sorites? 😕

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '11 - 1:21pm

    I disagree with Nick here.

    This may have been one point taken out of a much longer speech, but it is predictable it would have been taken it and used as it has been. I’m afraid that, once again, it shows his lack of acumen. If one is going to pick a battle with the Tories, this is not the one to pick. Conservatism has a good trick – pick a few small socially conservative issues, make a big fuss about them, and use the result to keep on board a whole load of supporters who are actually rather simple minded and can’t see (because no-one is telling them) that the main destructive force of the things they value is the sort of economic policy that Conservative parties have come to support since the Thatcher/Reagan era. Parties on the economic left have tended to play into the hands of these people and get obsessed with these same social issues, giving the impression that they are much more concerned with making a stand on them than on wider issue of social equality and freedom for those tied with economic chains.

    So, Clegg manages to insult those who do feel there is something of value in the idea marriage by grossly misrepresenting their position and mocking them in what was actually quite a nasty way, using an argument which no liberal should use “it’s bad because it’s old fashioned”. New Labour were fond of this argument, but in my experience anyone using it is just showing they don’t have a strong argument for their position. We ought perhaps to remember that the great totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century made much use of the argument that they were “new” and “progressive” and so therefore inevitable, while liberal values were old-fashioned 19th century things and so could be dispensed with just on those grounds. Clegg tells us there are other ways of bringing up children, but does not say what they are. Idealistic attempts to introduce them have universally failed. In practice, there is a commonly used alternative, and that is the state does the job of the missing daddy. Well, I’d rather that than the third world alternative (as portrayed in the old song “Rum and coca-cola”), but I thought we liberals were supposed not to like dependency on the state.

    Marriage is an agreement of mutual support, and in general we should be supporting systems of mutual support so long as we are cautious to keep them voluntary. It is in the state’s interest, if it is a liberal state, to have such systems of mutual support, as it saves the state having to provide such support. The public declaration of mutual support suggests some self-discipline to keep it, and I suggest it is in the state’s interest to encourage it. To say a minor tax break is “forcing” it is silly. Aren’t we very often in favour of tax breaks to encourage what we could regard as socially useful behaviour while not going so far as to ban what we regard as less useful? I mean by this most obviously various forms of “green taxes” or tax allowances.

    One thing Clegg has probably not thought through is the extent to which sobriety – which I mean in its wider sense – is a key part of a society of equal opportunities. This was something very much recognised by our 19th century political ancestors, but almost lost amongst liberals now. Those from a wealthy background cannot see it because they have never had to struggle from poverty and so experienced how a certain sense of personal discipline almost always a necessary party of that. A sense of personal discipline is less important if you have wealth and contacts to fall back on. Smashing up restaurants with your drinking gang or setting fire to rare plant collections may be funny juvenile japes if daddy’s going to set you up with a job in the bank anyway. If you’re a kid on a council estate and daddy’s an unskilled worker, it’s going to give you a criminal record and wipe out your chances of getting on in life.

    I am old enough to remember amongst the working class there was quite a strong sense of decent behaviour, which has now almost gone. Clegg may mock it, or rather its middle-class version, but we knew it was the key to social progression because we saw it with our own eyes. Those families that had it saw their kids move on in life. Those families that didn’t have it didn’t. So, yes, I would reward those boys and girl who make a solemn promise to bring up their children together. At the moment those who still have those values feel they are punished for them. They are cut out at the bottom end – if you wait till you’re married to have children, you’ll never get a council house – and from moving upwards by the growing economic inequality in society, since working hard and living carefully now still won’t get you the money needed to buy a house.

    What Clegg is reported as saying here seems to me to be once again him acting like the public schoolboy who has been picked to play the role of the “Liberal” in the school debating contest at general election time. He means well, he has some sympathy, but it’s all mugged up, he gets things wrong because of lack of experience, he jumps on simplistic bandwagon points, he lacks the maturity to think things through carefully, he lacks originality, he gives the impression he is saying what he says because he thinks that’s what he ought to be saying in his role rather than because he has really deeply thought it through.

    Oh, and since I have tried to say things like this in these columns and been told I shouldn’t, please cut these last two paragraphs out if they mean the rest won’t be allowed through. I’m sorry if they don’t fit in with the idea we should all be uncritical salesmen for our party. I say what I say honestly because I want our party to succeed, I have invested over 30 years of my life into it and don’t want to throw that away. I think we have gone down the wrong path since we elected Clegg as leader, and I’m afraid that if I am to be honest in explaining why, I have to get a bit personal.

  • Peter Chivall 19th Dec '11 - 2:09pm

    @Matthew Huntbach. I think your analysis of the role of “traditional values” in personal advancement and family stability and community cohesion is a good one but I think Nick was right, although not for his stated reasons. I think there is plenty of justification for opposing married couples’ tax breaks in looking at who would benefit from it. It will be overwhelmingly the better off and childless couples who would benefit most, even if it only pays for small luxuries. If the state wants to reward stable relationships, then why not a 5year, 10year and 15year ‘bonus’ paid through the tax credit system to those in marriages OR civil partnerships with dependent children.
    Matthew is right that we appear to have fallen into a trap which would allow the Tories to turn some married couples against us – ironic since it was Thatchers government that abolished the allowance in 1990. We should have something positive to say, like allowing those in stable partnerships to pool their tax allowances, if they wish, so they are not DIS-advantaged vis-a-vis single persons.
    As for Nick’s lack of domestic political experience, this is also true I feel of some of his advisors. Perhaps we need to hear more of experienced radicals like Vince or Matthew Oakshott whose personal philosophies seem better able to combine social and financial justice and personal liberty. Perhaps Nick’s advisers should stand and recite the Preamble from their Party cards each morning before they are allowed their cornflakes!
    I could ramble on……..

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '11 - 3:42pm

    Simon Banks

    I can’t see anywhere in his remarks an attack on marriage or anything that could make us seem to be anti-marriage. He was attacking the idea that one model of marriage, with the stay-at-home wife, was right.

    Sure, but he came across as attacking marriage and attacking anyone who had some sense of tradition, what he said was easily twisted into some sort of nightmare scenario of the state doing all the work of bringing up children because that’s “modern”. Now, he might not have said that or intended it, but it was predictable that’s how how words would have been interpreted in the right-wing press. The attacks on him may have been over-the-top, but so were his remarks in the first place. I don’t see the minor tax change this was actually about as insisting that men and women should behave in a stereotypical middle-class 1950s way.

    As I have said, I do think there is a good social reason for valuing the institution of marriage, it is a discipline to keep it up, and the idea that those who have made that promise to keep it up and put some effort into doing it should have some recognition for that does not seem to me to be a bad one – certainly not so bad that I would pick it as the one thing I’d fight with the Tories about, or want to identify opposition to it as the key point of a liberal. One might suggest the Tories have not picked the best way to do it, but I think if one wanted to say that, one would not use the language Clegg did use on this issue.

    My views on this come to a large extent from having been brought up on a council estate and later represented a similar one as a councillor. I’m afraid I do see unstable arrangements for bringing up children – which mostly do involve the mother doing it all while the father has disappeared – as contributing to why children from this background now seem to have less chance than ever of getting on in life. These things have a deeper effect when one is poor, the mutual co-operation that is a stable marriage is very helpful in pulling oneself out of poverty.

  • There is quite a lot of mistaken thinking on this and the politicians’ knack of completely reversing cause and effect (and indeed confusing it with correlation!). There is an IFS study at which shows that the effect of marriage is very small. To quote:

    “Parents who are cohabiting when their child is born are three times more likely to split up by the time their child is five than married parents (27% compared to 9%). However they are also typically younger, less well off, less likely to own their own homes, have fewer educational qualifications and are less likely to plan their pregnancies than married people. Once these differences between the two groups are accounted for, the difference in the likelihood of separation almost disappears (falling to 2 percentage points).

    “The evidence suggests that much of the difference in relationship stability between married and cohabiting parents is due to pre-existing differences between the kinds of people who get married before they have children, compared to those that cohabit.” said Ellen Greaves, research economist at the IFS.

    A large percentage of people now co-habit and then have a baby and then marry (or may be stay unmarried!). The complete reverse from 20-30 years ago. Indeed I would suggest that co-habitation is quite a positive trend in ensuring that you are compatible. Rather as in the past than may be getting married, having a baby and then realising you are completely unsuitable as a couple and getting divorced or alternatively having a very unhappy marriage that affects the kids – all of which is not great either!!! It is quite likely that those that don’t marry after co-habiting and having a baby have a weaker relationship. So it is not that not marrying leads to a weaker relationship but not marrying indicates a weaker relationship.

    There are 17 million households headed by a couple – 71% about 12 million married and presumably therefore 5 million unmarried couple or single parents or there were in 2008 – see So £150 a year would cost around £2 billion. £2 billion could be much better spent on other things to help families – contraception and other advice and help for teenagers for example etc. etc.

    And of course divorced couples, step families, single parent families can be very successful too and better some “traditional” families at bringing up children.

  • peter tyzack 20th Dec '11 - 12:37pm

    Chris_sh: The term ‘Open Society’ is fine by me, and Nick is quite right to use it . He doesn’t need to define it for us, as it is in the preamble to the Party Constitution. Any doubt about what it means should be referred back to the authors.

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