The commitment of cohabiting: stranger, stronger?

New figures published this week show that the number of cohabiting couples in the UK has risen by nearly 40 percent in a decade. In 2001 there were 2.1 million such couples; today the figure stands at 2.9 million. By contrast, the number of married/civil partner couples fell from 12.3 to 12.1 million.

This is a remarkable figure when set against the current debate over equal marriage for same-sex couples. Society seems to be pulling in two different ways; one group clamouring for the right to be married; another voting with their feet against it.

This tension reflects a deeper ambivalence towards institutional commitment. We retain a romantic attachment to the idea of life-long commitment under law, and even under God – and will fight for the right to enter into the marriage contract. But we also want to feel free. Joni Mitchell captured this tension well in her song ‘Help Me’: “We love our lovin’/ But not like we love our freedom.”

So how do we manage this tension between freedom and commitment? Do couples typically live together for a while until they decide they would like to settle down, and start a family? No doubt some do, finding that the container of marriage offers a safer context in which to have children. But the idea that most do is a myth.

The reality is that the same proportion of cohabiting couples have children as married couples: 38 percent. This seems to undermine the view that cohabitees are simply ‘married couples in waiting’. Rather, it suggests that there is a significant proportion of couples who start families with no intention of getting married. They have made a deliberate choice to take commitment out of an institutional setting, and domesticate it.

Commitment is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be; but it would be a mistake to say that it is no longer there. Clearly, a couple who have chosen one another, chosen to live under the same roof, and chosen to start a family together, are displaying a symbol of their commitment every bit as visible as a wedding ring.

The danger for such couples, however, is that the law has been slow to catch up with the solidity of their commitment. In England and Wales, cohabiting couples who break up have very few of the legal safeguards enjoyed by married couples. In Scotland, the situation is better: the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 ensures some legal protection – for example, over property rights – for cohabitees who break up.

But the irony of the Act is that it abolished a form of marriage that had held its ground since Roman times. Roman Law acknowledged that a couple who had been cohabiting for a year, by consent, could be regarded as married under Common Law. It is astonishing that this was abolished as late as 2006, in Scotland. Perhaps this is the very law we need, across the UK, to ensure that the real commitment of cohabiting couples is recognized, valued and safeguarded.

‘Moral capitalism’ – a contradiction in terms?

David Cameron’s call for ‘moral capitalism’ is a brave attempt to marry chalk with cheese.

Capitalism is not a moral system – it’s simply a logic that we allow to unfold (or not).

‘Moral capitalism’ is as much an oxymoron as ‘moral Darwinism’. We can no more expect capitalism to be moral, than we can expect a hungry lion to eat toast.

The comparison with Darwinism is instructive. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, of the survival of the best-adapted, provides a direct biological analogy to the economy. The economy mirrors nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ – those with the best brains, those most socially skilled, those who are most beautiful, or ruthless, or privileged, will tend to emerge as winners in the economic race. The stupid, the slow, the awkward, the ugly, the meek, the weak, and the disadvantaged, will tend to emerge as losers.

This is fact of economics: it is not a moral system. It’s a cruel, but robust, logic, which anyone who has ever competed to win a job, or buy a house, will know only too well.

Of course, winners in the economic race don’t like to think that their position in the world is entirely down to their own sharp-elbowed ruthlessness or past privilege. So they will tend to champion the one moral claim that capitalism does have on its side – that capitalism benefits the good of the whole. Adam Smith claimed that many acts of self-interest – by the guiding action of some ‘invisible hand’ – amount to an outcome that favours the common good, such as society getting richer as a whole. In the Thatcher era, this was expressed as the belief that cutting taxes for the rich would result in a ‘trickle-down’ of their wealth to the rest of society.

Today, this same defence can be heard on the lips of bankers and CEOs; namely, that it is good that they are paid unspeakable sums, since this keeps their talent in the UK, and this benefits the economy for all of us. Is that a moral argument, or a form of blackmail?

So capitalism is the economic embodiment of Darwinism. It is not a moral system, but simply a very efficient, very ruthless, mechanism which ensures that the species we call the economy will survive. But it is entirely indifferent to the fate of individuals within that society.

So what could Cameron mean by ‘moral capitalism’?  He can only mean a form of capitalism whose inner logic is restricted in some way – like asking the big cats to stop chasing the gazelle, and eat toast instead. On what basis could such restrictions be imposed? Not on the basis of capitalism itself, since capitalism is a logic based on self-interest; and raw self-interest, as Kant explained, can never be the basis of a moral system. Some other system of ethics would need to be invoked, which would make society fairer, kinder, more humane, more just – by limiting the raw energies of capitalism.

We are not short of these. Catholic social teaching, socialism in its various forms, communitarian models of living, co-operatives, social enterprises, and the welfare state, all offer resources for a new economics. So do other European economies (Scandinavia in particular) which have achieved far more equal societies than we in the UK. What Cameron should be calling for is not a ‘moral capitalism’, but a moral economy.

‘Moral capitalism’ is a marriage of chalk and cheese. It will end – no doubt – in dust, sweat and tears.


Warming world, cooling concern

Remember 2006? That was the year that the media finally got hold of the pressing issue of dangerous global warming and made it everyone’s concern. The BBC pronounced it their ‘climate chaos’ season, and produced a series of short informational films. And we, the public, went in our droves to see Al Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth. Many of us left the cinema convinced that the world was on the brink of a humanly-generated disaster. I went out and bought a ton of biodiesel which kept my car going for a year.

Six years on, and the sense of urgency has abated. New research from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey indicates that people are now less concerned about the threat to the environment from climate change than they were ten years ago. At the same time, they are also considerably more sceptical about claims regarding such threats. Moreover, falling concern and rising scepticism are linked, such that the views of climate change ‘sceptics’ have become more polarised from the views of those who believe that the threat is real.

The growth of climate change scepticism, and the cooling of concern, has a knock-on effect in our behaviour. Aside from the fact that we are recycling more than ever (council schemes have made it easy for us), the research shows that it is more likely to be those already concerned about climate change who will seek to cut back on car use, and energy consumption. Sceptics, on the other hand, are less likely to be motivated by environmental reasons to cut back in these ways. The last five years have also seen a significant reduction in concern over the environmental impact of travel, whether by trains, planes or automobiles.

Why is this? Four factors in particular seem to lie behind this drift away from environmental concern.

The first seems to be the fallout from the so-called ‘climategate’ scandal, in 2009, when emails leaked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia seemed to point to the suppression of data that might have brought into question the consensus over anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. In fact, the scientific consensus remains. But what climategate offered was a opportunity for sceptics to be confirmed in their own suspicion. This could explain one particular finding of the BSA report: concern over the impact of car use on climate change fell gently from a high of 80% in 2006, to 73% in 2009, but then plummeted to 64% the following year. A scandal need not be true to be effective.

A second explanation for the loss of concern is the effect of the economic downturn. The BSA survey asked people whether they thought that too much concern is directed to the environment’s future, and not enough to prices and jobs today. In 2000, only 35% agreed; by 2010, the proportion who felt this way had risen to 43%.

A third reason for the general cooling of public concern over global warming comes from evidence that the public have become increasingly divided into ‘encampments’ of opinion on this issue. No longer is climate concern spread broadly across the public arena. And since behaviour seems to follow beliefs, those in the ‘sceptics’ camp are less likely to alter their behaviour, than those who believe. The BSA survey also found that the variation in concern about climate change was correlated to educational attainment, with the more educated being more concerned.

A final reason may be that the public have become fatigued with the issue. This is perhaps not surprising, as it is difficult to live with a feeling of impending apocalypse for long. But the media are also implicated here. Media theorists have long spoken of the ‘cycle of attention’ that accompanies any story. A story can’t be breaking news for ever, nor can its implications unfold indefinitely. Eventually, like a dying star, it must cease to shine. The media will only run with a story so long as it lives; and it only lives for so long. Then they will move on. The danger is we have reached that place. The evidence (from the graph below) shows a tailing off in media interest. (Notice the 2009 ‘spike’ – probably climategate.)

But while the story cools, the world continues to warm. We won’t be able to ignore it for ever.




Families with children will bear the burden of austerity

There’s one sure way to beat the cuts: give away your children. In Greece, parents in dire poverty have already begun to do so.

But even here in Britain, a recent report commissioned by the Family and Parenting Institute reveals that in the next few years, middle-income earners with children are going to be hardest hit by government austerity measures.

The report, compiled by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, looks at the median income for families with children. (If you line up every family in order of income from lowest to highest, the median income is the income of the person standing at the exact mid-point in the line.) If your income is around this mid-point, it is projected to fall by 4.2% between 2010 and 2015.

Doesn’t sound too dire? This drop equates to a fall in income of £1250 per year. 

And it’s even worse if you have three children, or more. By 2015, your income will have fallen by 6.8%. If you’ve been counting on those tax credits to make ends meet, then get ready for the storm. You are going to feel it. (Or, you could consider giving away your children.)

The report also offers bad news for families with children under five (drop of 4.9%), those in the bottom decile of income (drop of 6%), and lone parents not in employment (drop of 12%).

It is clear that the burden of tax and benefit reforms are falling on some of the most vulnerable, including those with new babies, and lone parents out of work. But it is not only the poor and vulnerable who will feel these cuts – it is also the middle-class, middle-income, families with children who will feel the squeeze.

Let’s be clear – these are not ‘benefit scroungers,’ who will be driven off their couches through sheer poverty to go in search of work. They are people already maxed out at work  (fighting the threat of redundancy) and at home (looking after children), struggling just to keep food on the table and the mortgage payments up-to-date. They don’t have too much slack.

So how might they tighten their belts? After year one, with £1250 less in the bank, they could forget going on holiday. And at the end of year two? They could get rid of the car. And year three? They might cancel all savings plans. And year four? It could be time to cook the dog. How, then, will they cope by the end of year five?

Time to get a third job, perhaps? Or failing that, to give away their children.