LONDON — THE high-profile marital problems of Queen Elizabeth's children may make the biggest headlines, but they are part of an escalating national trend that has already put Britain at the top of Europe's divorce league.
Defenders of marriage claim that this troubling situation is likely to be made worse by new legislation that will eliminate the concept of "fault" from all divorces.
When the Family Law Bill now passing through Parliament becomes law, a couple will be able to obtain a divorce after one year merely by informing the court that they agree their marriage has broken down irretrievably.
Until now a person seeking a quick divorce has had to prove adultery or other unreasonable misconduct before a court would rule. Otherwise, it can take as long as five years for a marriage to be legally ended by mutual agreement.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Britain's most senior law officer, is piloting the controversial bill through Parliament. The Lord Chancellor has argued that speedy, no-fault divorces are "in the interests of the children" because they "reduce conflict between the separating parents."
But he has run into a hail of criticism from members of the ruling Conservative Party for allegedly stripping divorce of moral implications and thereby undermining marriage as an institution.
Bill would cause 'havoc'
Baroness Janet Mary Young, usually a forthright government supporter, claims the bill will "make divorce far too easy" and "cause havoc for the children involved in marriage break-ups."
"Marriage is a contract, and there are such things as obligations and responsibilities," she argued during a debate in the House of Lords. Mackay has countered by saying his bill allows for couples to seek the help of "marriage mediators" and to reflect on the advice they receive in the interval between a divorce being approved by the court and it taking effect 12 months later.
His critics, however, point out that a MORI opinion survey in 1994 showed that 60 percent of those interviewed opposed the concept of "divorce on demand," and 57 percent wanted divorce "to be made harder."
Lady Olga Maitland, a Conservative member of the House of Commons, says the survey proves that Mackay is not heeding public opinion and "damaging marriage."
British rate already high
Divorce surveys elsewhere in Europe show that Britain already has the highest divorce rate in the 15-nation European Union.
A survey carried out by the social analysis group Euromonitor showed that 6.1 out of every 1,000 British marry each year, while 3.1 divorce.
France has 4.4 marriages per 1,000, with 1.9 divorces. In the United States the marriage rate is 9 per 1,000; divorces at 4.8.
Most of the fury evoked by Mackay's bill has arisen from the government side.
The Labour opposition has been adopting a low-key approach, apparently in the belief that dissension within the ruling party will convince the public that an already unpopular government is on weak ground.
After a vigorous debate, the House of Lords voted to require that wives must receive a share of their husbands' pensions after divorce. Currently a husband is entitled to the full pension after divorce.
The outcome of the vote prompted the Conservative-supporting Daily Mail to ask: "Is m'Lord losing his grip on reality?"
In a full-page editorial, the paper said: "This bill is bad for marriage, family, and society ... The untold damage this bill could do to this country's social fabric should be of overriding concern to both peers and people."
Mackay's support for a period of reflection by the divorcing couple, helped by mediation from marriage experts, has been criticized by Relate, Britain's leading marriage-advice organization.
It says it lacks the funds to carry out the kind and scale of work the Lord Chancellor has in mind.
"We receive 1.6 million [$2.4 million] a year from the government," a Relate spokesman said. "That compares with about 250 million spent by the government on legal aid for people seeking divorce."
According to the latest government figures, 3 billion is spent each year on social-security benefits for people already divorced.