What is the point of a Conservative party that does not see practical value, perhaps wisdom, in traditional institutions such as marriage? There are some less worthy reasons for preserving prevailing structures, such as sheer self-interest, but the overwhelming reason for valuing established institutions is intellectual modesty. We should be aware of our own intellectual and moral limitations and take seriously the possibility that there may be wisdom in institutions that have been valued by people who came before us.
The mere reactionary would give no such reason for respecting the past, but a thinking Conservative in the tradition of Burke and Hayek (neither of whom called themselves conservatives) can see that understanding borne of hard experience may be embodied in long-standing legal structures. Opponents of traditional marriage have fallen into the trap of hyper-individualism. Sometimes without being aware of it, they see society as comprising nothing but individuals and their wants. For them, marriage primarily bestows legal privileges, which are not available to the unmarried. They must have these privileges in the name of equality.
But the hyper-individualists, who lack awareness of their personal intellectual limitations and think it impossible that they could learn from earlier generations, have had their task made much easier by the half-hearted resistance of the Church of England. It has allowed marriage to be so hollowed out that it is already little more than a few legal rights. Traditional marriage at its best involved accepting burdens. It was above all a lifelong commitment. If your partner became ill or disabled you had to see it through – and not walk out on them. If children emerged, as they do in most cases, you had to take full responsibility for them. And you had solemnly to swear to be sexually faithful to each other.
When divorce was based on fault, it gave partners a reason to treat each other with respect. Marriage provided a regular outlet for sexual needs. Partly for this reason and partly because children were expected to emerge except for the unlucky few, non-consummation of a marriage was a reason for annulling it. Without regular sex, some might seek their pleasures elsewhere and unwanted babies might result.
The legal rights to inherit property, and (in earlier times) to recognition in the tax system, only made sense as a package that included the heavy burdens of lifelong fidelity and dedication to your own children. Now that these obligations are so diminished, it is easy to see marriage as not more than a bundle of rights.
It was the great insight of Hayek to see that the evolution of our institutions over time was the same process that legitimises scientific knowledge. As Mill, Popper, and others also saw, the sole reason for trusting human knowledge and understanding is that prevailing ideas have so far withstood frequent attempts to refute them. So it is with traditional marriage. Many alternatives have been tried and failed. To throw it away because of a political calculation that the Conservatives will gain the votes of LGBT activists and their sympathisers is unworthy of a serious political party. But what else is to be expected of leaders who treat politics as an exercise in deploying mass advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion?
David Green is director of Civitas.