Defenders of traditional marriage are somewhat dismayed by legal changes which promise to be “the biggest marriage shake-up in 200 years”. The main element of this promised reform is that heterosexual couples will be entitled to enter into “civil unions”, just as same-sex couples may already do so.

So there will be two models of couple union. One will be the traditional marriage rite. The other would be a civil union which involves a contract of partnership, but shorn of any religious or “gendered” symbols.

Secularist egalitarians have been campaigning for this option for some time, as an alternative to the baggage surrounding ideas like “man and wife”, and brides being “given away” by their fathers at the ceremony. Tim Loughton is the backbench MP introducing reforms, claiming they will enhance social stability. But Colin Hart of the Coalition for Marriage says that extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples “will profoundly undermine marriage”.

My theory is more optimistic: that when the ersatz appears, it adds more value to the real thing. When there are two forms of marriage contract, the “gold standard” version will be considered superior to the “basic” civil union.

This has happened with a number of everyday innovations. Take, say, the appearance of artificial fibres such as nylon and polyester. They were hailed as a breakthrough in convenience, economy and utility. They have their uses, yet as soon as they appeared on the market, natural fabrics immediately gained more status: real 400-thread cotton sheets became the desirable product, as did proper, flax-based linen, or genuine silk that came from silk-worms. The man-made fabrics became the cheap, inferior product.

Same thing with coffee. As instant coffee was introduced to the market in the 1950s and 60s, it was extolled for its low cost, wonderful convenience – you just added boiling water – and plausible coffee taste. But the appearance of the ersatz prompted a veritable revolution in the provision of real, roasted and percolated coffee, made with fancy Italian machines by a new set of professionals: the baristas. You can have your instant coffee – but the real thing has higher status.

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