Published in Daily Mail
It’s a longstanding tradition in Parliament that the process of legislating on contentious ethical issues and troubling moral dilemmas must respect the conscience of each individual MP. And so members are usually granted a free vote on the matter at hand, especially if it touches the transcendent, metaphysical and religious. This has long been the case with such emotively-charged concerns as capital punishment, abortion and embryology – matters upon which, in a liberal democracy, the conscience ought not to be coerced.
Or at least that was the case until Tony Blair began his moral crusade to impose ethical uniformity upon us all, in the exalted name of human rights and under the sinister guise of liberty and equality.
During the New Labour era, experimentation on the human embryo was a whipped issue, while hunting with hounds was a matter of individual conscience. Blair forced his recalcitrant Christian MPs to vote in favour of gay adoption, but gave them all a free vote on the banning of smoking in enclosed public places. It’s a strange moral worldview that puts fox welfare above that of the unborn baby, and the awesome responsibility of child-rearing above voluntary emphysema.
But at least we knew where Blair stood on these issues. Many voters and political commentators (not least on RightMinds) often cry out for ‘conviction politicians’, but then rail against those very politicians and party leaders whose conviction doesn’t quite accord with their own. Blair was (and remains) a highly polished performer, but few will doubt that he’s also a man with an unctuous missiological imperative to usher in a New World Order of pantheistic peace, ubiquitous unity and ‘Third Way’ wonder and love. He failed in the Middle East to find common ground between Arabs and Jews, so now he’s returned to the UK to mediate between Eds Miliband and Balls.
But David Cameron is an altogether different political animal. He, too, undoubtedly performs very well. But if he has a private conviction on any religious moral or ethical concern, he keeps it very well hidden. Take, for example, the issue of same-sex marriage. Having publicly apologised for Section 28, he has been concerned ever since with Tory brand decontamination in order to reach out for the gay vote. In an interview screened on Channel 4 just before the 2010 general election, he was asked why Conservative MEPs refused to support a motion condemning anti-gay laws in Lithuania. Having agreed that gay equality was a fundamental human right, he responded: “I’ve tried to have free votes where possible on these sorts of issues but, er… I’m responsible for votes here. Sorry, it’s not a very good answer.”
He’s right; it wasn’t. Because the interviewer pressed him on the manifest illogic and inconsistency of whether a fundamental human right could ever be the subject of a free vote. Cameron spluttered: “You’re right, you’re right. Sorry, sorry. You’re right… the two are very different. Sorry.”
To get his modernisation programme back on track, at last year’s party conference he announced: “I once stood before a Conservative conference and said it shouldn’t matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man. You applauded me for that.”
At last, the LGBT communities had found a Tory (and Leader of the Party, no less) with the conviction to advocate for marriage equality, and to do so in the presence of hundreds of loyal volunteers for whom this issue ranges anywhere between distraction and abomination. But the Prime Minister didn’t care: he was intent on legislating for this because it’s ‘the right thing to do’.
And he went further: “To anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.”
The Prime Minister is awfully muddled on this. If same-sex marriage is truly the conservative (or Conservative) and right thing to do, how can he permit his colleagues to entertain the distinctly un-conservative (or un-Conservative) decision to oppose it? If same-sex marriage is about equality, commitment, and the assertion of a fundamental human right, he must whip his MPs through the ‘aye’ lobby and his Lordships through the ‘content’ lobby. Because if he doesn’t, he’s admitting that the cause of equal marriage is neither conservative nor right, except in his own mind. He’s declaring that this ‘fundamental human right’ isn’t so fundamental after all: it’s secondary, or tertiary, or even so utterly peripheral that he couldn’t care less how Conservative MPs and Peers vote on the matter.
And then he’ll wonder why the Conservative Party’s approval ratings continue to slide, and the widespread perception of him remains one of disappointment, cynicism and betrayal.