OPINION - This is one political proposal the Tories should really steal

 (Daniel Hambury)
(Daniel Hambury)

There are no secrets between us, dear reader, so I shall not hide from you that last night I passed on the leaders’ appearances on Sky and instead read the letters of Evelyn Waugh and laughed like a drain throughout. I recommend them for this election campaign; they are rude, subversive and truthful, and you won’t get that latter quality in any of the manifestos.

But there was in fact one manifesto commitment that brought me up short and I’m only surprised that it made it on to the BBC headlines yesterday. The SDP is proposing a transferable tax allowance for married couples with children. So, if you’re a spouse who stays at home to mind the children, you can transfer your entire allowance, a bit over £12,500 a year, to the household earner so a couple will only start paying tax above £25,000. Quite a decent sum, no?

It is, at least for our time, a genuinely radical measure. When the two main parties are trying to compete with each other as to how early they can get mothers back to work after birth, with the Prime Minister bragging about nursery places for nine-month-old infants, here is a proposal which acknowledges, indeed, encourages, those parents who take the view that one of them might want to mind their own children.

Of course, you wouldn’t have to. There’s no compulsion there. But what it does is to use the tax system to acknowledge the aspiration and to support marriage.

Compare and contrast with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s position, which is to set the married couple’s allowance at £10,380 — and since the tax relief for the allowance is fixed at 10 per cent of that, the lucky spouses can hope to gain a maximum credit of £1,038 to set against basic rate income tax. Spend it wisely, folks.

Once upon a time, encouraging marriage was an acknowledged good that the state, via the tax system, sought to support

Once upon a time, back when Nigel Lawson was chancellor, encouraging marriage was an acknowledged good that the state, via the tax system, sought to support. When the Tories knew what they were for, that is, when they had a coherent system of values, one of those values was the support of marriage and the family. And funnily enough, that would not have been disputed by Labour either. It was in 2000, under Sir Tony Blair, that the married couple’s allowance ceased and it was only brought back in a shy and attenuated form by David Cameron in 2015.

Now it falls to a small, near unknown party to bring back onto the radar what was once considered an obvious good. Oh. You didn’t know that the SDP was standing? Actually… who? Only those of a certain age even remember the SDP when it broke from Labour with the Gang of Four, and changed British politics; it is the revenant rump of that party which is now seeking to change them again with a combination of social conservatism and public ownership.

The odds in this election are slim. Even the politically aware would struggle to recognise its leader, William Clouston, in an identity parade. Its best known candidate is Rod Liddle, a columnist. But if the Tories after the coming cataclysm are seeking to recover a sense of what they are for, then they could begin by stealing these SDP clothes off the washing line. Indeed if Sir Keir Starmer wants to reassure voters that Labour cherishes traditional values — Sir Tony was good at that — then he too could nick it.

The underlying reason, of course, is that marriage is demonstrably better for the children born into it than any of the alternatives. And if we cherish our children, we’ll want to encourage it. Simple as that.

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist