Saturday, 29 May 2010

Property and private lives

I never wanted to be someone's property. Human beings shouldn't own one another. . For women in Britain, the Married Woman's Property Act of 1882 was the first step in a vital succession of laws freeing women from forced dependency on - and subjection to - their husbands.

Laws and regulations have never been good at dealing with the complicated intimacies of human lives. It seems wrong to me that a man or woman claiming benefits who embarks on a sexual relationship is often expected to demand money from his or her sexual partner. It looks like charging for sexual favours. It turns the relationship from one of potential equality into something close to prostitution.

Many relationships aren't easy to define or regulate. They can be fragile and new. They can be an extension of friendship. They can be more casual than the law would like - and, unless we want the state to be the guardian of our personal morality, we should be very careful about how we allow it to legislate against pleasure.

The case of David Laws falls into this difficult area. He says that he never considered his relationship a partnership: it wasn't public, it didn't involve sharing bills or even a shared social life. That sounds convincing to me, even though it's evident the relationship was important to him. Not all relationships are partnerships. I'm also old enough to remember that anti-gay prejudice and persecution continued long after consensual acts between adult males were legalised. I can understand why someone of his generation - even though he's a little younger than me - might choose not to turn a relationship into something as public as a partnership. Privacy can become a habit. Not everyone wishes to share details of a relationship with friends, let alone the broadsheet and tabloid press.

I'm no fan of David Laws. I don't like the economic policies he has outlined in the Orange Book - and I don't suppose I'll like the cuts he's eager to impose. But it would be unjust to condemn him when I wouldn't condemn a benefits claimant in a similar situation.

I'd rather save my opposition for the economic policies he represents.

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