Thursday August 12th, 2021
Perhaps the most difficult decisions MPs have to make are those moral ones affecting life and death. In the Conservative Party, these are free votes – that is, the Government has no view on this and it is up to individual MPs to decide how to legislate. These votes are known as matters of conscience.
Examples of these include whether assisted dying should be permitted for the incurable, the maximum (if any) age a foetus can be aborted, and the age of consent for gay sex – which was a big issue back in 1994, and even whether to allow smoking in public places.
Most people have views on these and I am often lobbied by constituents and national bodies one way or another. But ultimately, I have to make the choice for myself. On social issues, I tend to be very liberal. So I was one of the very few MPs of any political party who voted to equalise the age of consent for gay and straight people back in 1994. It was finally made law 6 years later in 2000 and is taken for granted today. I have also resisted all attempts to ban abortion.
Some might argue that my decision to support a ban on smoking in public places was less liberal. But I believe that we should all have the right to breathe clean air wherever possible and not have a pub or restaurant polluted by acrid smoke. Surely that has improved the quality of life?
The issue has not come before Parliament, but I believe we need a rethink on drug policy. When the US attempted to ban the manufacture and sale of alcohol 100 years ago, it led to gangsterism and murder. Prohibition never works. Current drugs policy leads to quick profits and dealers. When Portugal decriminalised drug use in 2001, it did not see any spike in drug use and drug deaths are now amongst the lowest in Europe.
Representatives not Delegates
On all these issues, MPs need to use their own judgment to determine what is best. We are not delegates taking instruction on each issue from the electorate, but representatives. The 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke put it this way: ‘Constituents elect their representatives as trustees for their constituency. These trustees have autonomy to deliberate and act as they see fit, in their own conscience’. Of course, if constituents disagree, there’s always the ballot box!