Lord Irvine: Love Doctor?

The Lord Chancellor's 'Strategy for Marriage and Relationship Support' presents intimate relationships as a grown-up form of bullying.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

The UK Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine might, as the Daily Telegraph points out, seem like a strange choice of character to be writing marriage guidance for the government. He had an affair with Alison Dewar while she was still married to Scotland’s late first minister Donald Dewar, and Lord Irvine divorced his wife to marry his mistress (1).

But then, as our therapeutic culture continually reminds us, it is those people who have made a mess of their own relationships who are best placed to instruct us in our love lives – as they have been there and can feel our pain. And the closer ties these sufferers-turned-counsellors have to the government, the better.

Moving Forward Together: A Proposed Strategy for Marriage and Relationship Support for 2002 and Beyond, a report produced by the Lord Chancellor’s department on 16 April 2002, lays out ‘government’s 10-point plan for marriage and relationship support’ (2). The title of the report is instructive: Lord Irvine wants couples to ‘move forward together’ into a more intimate relationship with the state. ‘The government has no desire to tell people how to live their lives’, he states in the foreword. ‘But if couples’ lives can be improved – and those of their children – then that is something worth doing.’

Uncontroversial, this – I can think of millions of ways to improve the lives of couples and their children, possibly starting with 24-hour crèche facilities and cheaper houses. But the Lord Chancellor’s department is less interested in what we have, than in how we feel about the relationships we negotiate. Its 10-point plan is based around therapy – providing more advice and support to more people at more appropriate times.

The report’s key refrain is that government-sponsored relationships advice currently comes ‘too little, too late’; and what is needed is emotional intervention from primary school onwards, to help people manage their intimate relationships. Because, after all, our marriages and partnerships are far too important to manage on our own.

Why does the government care so much about the twists and turns of people’s private, intimate lives? It would be easy to get the impression, from the Lord Chancellor’s report, that the big motivation is expediency. Scarcely a bullet-point goes by without some mention of how stable couples ‘save money for families, for the government, and for other public organisations’ (4). But while coupledom may be cheap, this is not a convincing explanation for the depth of the government’s interest in the intricacies of people’s personal relationships.

It’s not money talking here, but an explicit therapeutic approach that genuinely fears people’s ability to cope with their relationships, and wants them to cope better for their own sake.

While the report continually states that ‘the couple [is] the cornerstone of the family’, it takes pains to stress how many different types of couple, and different types of family, there are. ‘Each relationship is unique, and gender, age, faith, beliefs, sexual orientation, ethnicity and culture, disability, environment, family proximity, socioeconomic circumstances and many other factors affect the meaning it has for a couple’, intones its section on the need to ‘Recognise and cater for diversity’ (5).

Government intervention, according to the Lord Chancellor’s report, needs to get into the middle of all of these diverse types of conflicts and contradictions, and help couples negotiate their uneasy relationships. Note: negotiate, not resolve. Because according to this report, ‘Disagreements between parents are a normal and necessary part of family life’ (6). The idea running throughout the report is that personal relationships are inherently conflicting and contentious, and that rather than believing in the naive notion of love bringing people together, more effort needs to be put into teaching people to manage their mutual dislike.

Hence the heavy stress on ‘conflict management’. ‘Couples argue in different ways’, suggests the report. ‘It has been suggested that some types of conflict are more harmful to children than others.’ (7) It then goes on to list the types of conflict in descending order, according to the degree of harm inflicted: destructive conflict, which is ‘characterised by verbal or physical aggression, non-verbal conflict (the “silent treatment”), intense quarrels, and arguments that are concerned with or involve the children’; constructive conflict, ‘whereby parents effectively manage and resolve disagreements’; and productive conflict, ‘where problems are openly discussed but not necessarily resolved’.

The message here is stark. Personal relationships are based on a conflict of interests, in need of an ombudsman arbiter to mediate between lovers. The vision beneath this report is a society that is so damaged, so atomised, that individuals cannot even be expected to live in harmony. The best that can be hoped for is a lifelong, uneasy peace process.

To this end, the report argues for conflict management techniques to be instilled into children when they are scarcely out of the womb, to allow adequate time for them to guard against the horrors of intimate relationships later in life. ‘Teaching communication, conflict resolution and ways of preserving relationships at an early stage pays dividends later: for example, by reducing bullying and its long-term consequences, promoting children’s wellbeing, and increasing their capacity to relate well with others’, it says. (8)

The leap from bullying to marriage guidance provides a brutal picture of how the government views intimate relationships: violent, destructive, and in need of a responsible referee.

And if you think your relationship is all right, or if you don’t want the government’s help in managing your domestic rows, you’re in denial, and thinking the wrong way. ‘Many people feel that relationships are private and personal matters, and are thus unwilling to go for help’, the Lord Chancellor tells us. ‘People can feel antipathy, embarrassment or stigma about seeking help. There is therefore a role to be played in seeking to change the culture so that, from the recognition that relationships are important, and that some kind of relationship support may help, it would follow naturally that some support should be sought.’ (9)

Government advice and support, it seems, is not something you can take or leave. It’s something you have to learn to take.

Moving Forward Together depicts an entirely degraded view of human beings and human relationships, which sees the sins of an atomised, uneasy society visited upon our most intimate of relationships. In fact, things are not so bad as Lord Irvine imagines.

We are not so atomised that we have lost the ability to live together – and in any case, we stand a better chance of doing so when left alone, and not having to roll over to allow the government into bed.

Jennie Bristow is author of Maybe I Do?: marriage and commitment in singleton society, published as part of the Institute of Ideas’ Conversations in Print series. Respondents to her essay include Fay Weldon (novelist), Yvonne Roberts (author), Ed Straw (Relate), Barb Jungr (chansonnier), Eddie Gibb (Demos), Mary Kenny (author), Helen Wilkinson (Genderquake), Piers Benn (philosopher), Bel Mooney (author) and Dolan Cummings (Institute of Ideas).

To order a copy, email, telephone 020 7269 9220 or see the Institute of Ideas website

(1) Marriage guidance on internet for men, Daily Telegraph, 17 April 2002

(2) Lord Chancellor’s Department press release, 16 April 2002

(3) Moving Forward Together, Lord Chancellor’s Department

(4) Moving Forward Together, Lord Chancellor’s Department

(5) Moving Forward Together, Lord Chancellor’s Department

(6) Moving Forward Together, Lord Chancellor’s Department

(7) Moving Forward Together, Lord Chancellor’s Department

(8) Moving Forward Together, Lord Chancellor’s Department

(9) Moving Forward Together, Lord Chancellor’s Department

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Topics Politics


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