The much trailed speech by Nick Clegg this morning has this passage about marriage:
The institutions of our society are constantly evolving. Just look at the way the roles of men and women, and attitudes to marriage and divorce, have changed over the last century.
We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the 1950s model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, homemaking mother – and try and preserve it in aspic.
That’s why open society liberals and big society conservatives will take a different view on a tax break for marriage. We can all agree that strong relationships between parents are important, but not agree that the state should use the tax system to encourage a particular family form.
As other people have already pointed out, this is a straw man and woman. I don't know of anyone who promotes marriage who is lobbying for the vision which Clegg describes here. It's not the marriage Nick Clegg has, and as far as I'm aware the tax break for married couples, small as it is, isn't means tested on the basis of ties and aprons.
More importantly, Clegg is sawing off the branch he sits on. The substance of his speech is an explanation of why a liberal vision of an 'open society' is better than either the conservative or the socialist vision. At the heart of the 'open society' is social mobility, the principal that a childs circumstances of birth shouldn't determine how life turns out for them. There are few things more destructive to a childs life chances than a fractured home life, and, for all its faults, marriage promotes stability.
The Centre for Social Justice points out that family breakdown among unmarried parents is much higher than among those who are married. This in turn has marked effects on poverty, education, mental health, ability to form successful relationships etc.
Liberals have been at the forefront of the campaign to recognise civil partnerships: a chance for people in committed gay relationships to formalise and mark their commitment to one another. It seems slightly odd that at the same time, Clegg is basically saying that this kind of ceremony doesn't really matter, and isn't something that society should value or promote.
If there is a family form which does the best job at promoting the kind of environment where both adults and children can thrive, then why shouldn't the government promote this? After all, it is promoting other social structures - the same speech mentions the extension of nursery education to more 2 year olds. That's using government money to promote a social structure: more 2 year olds raised in state/private education facilities and raised less in the family home.
Final point: there's a deep ideological problem in Clegg's speech. Whilst Labour saw the state as the answer to pretty much everything, in Clegg's 'open society', everything is about the individual. No merit is attached to social structures, even if they are ones valued and embraced by large numbers of individuals. The place of families, neighbourhoods, unions, charities, political parties, co-ops, churches is mentioned but ascribed to 'conservatism'. Maybe he wouldn't go so far as to say 'there is no such thing as society', but Clegg doesn't seem that far away. I certainly couldn't imagine him talking about the kind of mutual dependence and community life depicted in Acts and 1 Corinthians. Cleggs world consists of individuals and institutions (in constant need of reform by individuals), but very little in between. The liberal self sounds mightly lonely.