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Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Tories take heart from Bridget Jones
A clip from the Bridget Jones film
'Like Bridget Jones, people still want marriage'
Marriage is not an outdated institution and instead many young people are on a Bridget Jones style search for the right partner, say the Conservatives.

Shadow work and pensions secretary David Willetts argues that left-wing commentators are wrong to write off marriage.

If anything we have higher hopes of marriage than ever before

David Willetts
Shadow work and pensions secretary

His comments comes after Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith accused Labour of being "morally neutral" towards the family.

Mr Willetts says more support should be given to marriage because relationship break-ups bring social problems, especially in the poorest areas.

In his speech to the Policy Exchange think-tank on Tuesday, he was seeking to counter "the Blairite pundits' claim that we as a nation are abandoning marriage".

'Taking longer'

The MP acknowledges that more marriages break up now but argues young people do still want to get married.

"Most people living together hope it will turn into a marriage," he said.

"It is not the case that people in Britain have abandoned a belief in marriage or an aspiration to get married."
David Willetts, shadow work and pensions minister
Willetts says Labour has misunderstood the UK

The average age for a first marriage is 30.5 years for men and 27.3 years for women.

"If anything we have higher hopes of marriage than ever before," insists Mr Willetts.

"We are taking longer than before to find the right partner, but we are still searching for that person with whom we want to spend the rest of our lives - just ask Bridget Jones."

The shadow cabinet minister argues that a gap is opening up between those aspirations and reality which needs to be tackled.

"People should feel supported and encouraged to sustain long-term relationships through marriage.

"Instead, all too often they feel that they are battling against a hostile environment.

"And of course, in our poorest areas the breakdown of relationships brings with it a whole host of social problems."

Child poverty link

Those problems, Mr Willetts says, both affect the quality of people's lives and increase the challenges for public services.

"The breakdown of the family and the spread of child poverty are inextricably linked.

"This is a connection which only Conservatives are willing to make."

Charles Clarke
Charles Clarke accuses the Tories of secret plans
Mr Willetts points to ways in which marriage can be supported, such as the Tory pledge at the last election to give a tax allowance to couples with children where one parent chooses to stay at home.

Many people go through a stage in their lives where they have no attachments, he will say, and that should not be ignored or shunned.

"We are the One Nation party, but we mustn't be the One generation party."

Mr Willetts also argues that the image of people now moving far more between different jobs and careers is inaccurate.

Young people experiment with different jobs but then often settle on one career and even one employer, he will say.

Revival drive

As he counters thinking about modern day work and family trends, Mr Willetts also accuses Tony Blair of misunderstanding the UK.

"Blair's attempts to reconstruct Britain around this theory of jostling, shifting, temporary lifestyle choices is out of touch with the reality of the lives and aspirations of most British people," he says.

Tuesday's speech is part of Tory efforts to build support among young people and cultivate a more caring image.

It builds on Iain Duncan Smith's pledge last week to slay the five chief social evils that blight life in the UK.

Labour have accused Conservatives of trying to pull off a "conjurer's trick" of appearing compassionate while secretly planning public service cuts and privatisations.

BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder assesses the Tory leader's first yearPath to power?
The verdict on Iain Duncan Smith's first year
See also:

13 Sep 02 | Politics
11 Sep 02 | Politics
15 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
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