Can Buy Me Love

7 December, 2005, London Evening Standard.

THE lights are low in a Soho bistro. Puccini plays through the speakers, as a white-haired waiter clears away the plates.
A nervous young man screws his courage to the sticking point and reaches into his pocket for a diamond ring. As the love duet from La Boheme pounds to its climax, he gazes into the doe eyes of the woman across the table.
‘We’ve been going out for three years.’
‘Four,’ she interrupts, somewhat testily.
‘Whatever. Now I feel we can’t go on drifting.’
‘No we can’t,’ she says her breast filling with a hope she never dared feel before.
‘Sweetness, my accountant says we must marry.’
‘Oh darling! You have made me so happy. My accountant says just the same.’
Of all the batty obsessions of the Tory party and Tory press, none has seemed battier than their determination to use the tax system to bribe couples to marry. They really believe there is nothing that money can’t buy.
It got madder this week when Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss condemned New Labour for abandoning children by failing to support marriage. That would be the same Dame Elizabeth who presided over a family court system which allowed Sir Roy Meadow and his fellow crackpots to take thousands of children from loving families and put them in care.
I could go on – what is all this nonsense about gay marriages “undermining” straight marriages? – but have to concede that an argument isn’t necessarily wrong just because it’s made by the Daily Telegraph.
Since the 1960s, there has been a vast amount of research done into the effect of the break-up of relationships, not all of it by born-again Christians, and the conclusions are always the same.
Although there are heroic single parents and married couples from hell, on average the children of parents who stay together do better at school, take fewer drugs and commit fewer crimes. Adults who stay together live longer and have happier lives than parents who split-up. And the people who are the most likely to stay together are people who marry.
The free-market in love the 1960s brought has been a social disaster, in other words.
So far, so conservative. Yet conservatives support the second free market, the free market in economics that also places intolerable pressures on families by denying parents the time to see their children.
What Britain and America got in the second half of the twentieth century was a phoney war between two wings of the same libertarian movement. On the whole, the Right wanted to deregulate markets and regulate families. On the whole, the Left wanted to let families rip but constrain business. Together they created a huge social change.
I think it is beyond the power of politicians to change it back by fiddling with the tax system. If the tide does turn, it will be because of a cultural shift. On the day you see men who abandon their families shunned by their former friends and workers telling the boss to stuff their blackberries you will know that we have left the last century behind.

THE other day I went to Eton to address the George Orwell debating society. When I had explained why I was right and they were wrong, I asked the pupils if they would vote for the old Etonian, David Cameron.
Only half raised their hands. But then the Orwell club is for Eton’s hard left – the £23,000-a-year teen revolutionaries who raise the red flag of rebellion in the quadrangle – so perhaps half the vote wasn’t so bad.
Afterwards a couple of the masters took me to a pub where the omens for Cameron looked grimmer.
“He was in my year when I was boy at Eton,” said one.
“Really,” I said reaching for my notebook. “What was he like?”
“Do you know, I can’t remember a thing about him.”

HOW strange to see in yesterday’s Standard that Monica Lewinsky is studying at the London School Economics. Nothing wrong with her being there, of course, she can’t be much over 30, but she feels like a figure from a lost age.
It’s hard now to look back before 9/11, and the Iraq War and 7/7 without wonderment. The world that thought it a grave and serious matter that an American politician had had lied about having sex with a woman seems utterly remote.

SIXTH formers who have seen the ‘off the wall’ questions Oxbridge dons throw at candidates need to learn the basic survival strategies of intellectual life.
The first is to always go on the attack and try to be more outrageous than your inquisitors. Oxford history professors ask, ‘Is the Eurovision Song Contest an example of living nationalism?’
The correct answer is, ‘Yes, and if Ireland wins again it will mean war.’
The second is to turn their cleverness against them. For instance, Cambridge law dons ask: ‘Would a good liar make a good lawyer?’
The correct answer is, “I’m a good liar, so yes.” (Think about it.)
Whatever they ask, on no account must you say “yerwot,” “come again” or “you really are a very silly man”.