Nicky Morgan voted against same-sex marriage partly because of her Christian faith. Photo: Getty
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Why does an MP’s moral code matter more than anyone else’s?

Faith doesn’t justify voting for inequality or taking the rights of minorities.

They say politics and morals don’t always go together. With new education secretary Nicky Morgan caught between her self-declared Christian beliefs and her responsibility to do her job, it seems (for albeit different reasons) that old adage might be right.

What’s an MP to do with their personal moral code? I imagine it’s genuinely difficult to leave your private faith at home (your concerns over gay relationships aptly in the bedroom, your desire to force women to give birth slotted on the kitchen table.) The problem is, by the nature of being an MP, your private faith is actually rather public: be it for abortion, gay rights, or assisted dying – when it comes to “moral legislation”, you get to inflict your personal beliefs on the rest of the country.  

It’s not as if these things don’t matter. Morgan is currently a women’s minister who doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to control her own body, and an education secretary and equalities minister briefed to tackle homophobic bullying in schools who’s voted to try and ensure gay children don’t grow up to be equal.

That she based those votes on her reading of a religious text as well as the legislation does not make it better. Even in a widely secular country, if a MPs’ belief comes from religion, we still seem expected to make special allowances for it. An atheist minister voting against government gay rights legislation would be a disloyal homophobe. Morgan doing it was her following her “Christian beliefs”. We don’t seem to let this happen to other parts of government. Why is policy about sex or love different than that on education or the economy? If Iain Duncan Smith told me he found a page at the back of the Bible that said God wanted the lame shipped onto the Work Programme, I’d be no more inclined to support it or respectfully disagree. Religion doesn’t make a bad policy better. Faith doesn’t justify voting for inequality or taking the rights of minorities. 

It reminds me of the Christian Relate counsellor going to court over refusing to do what he was paid for if it involved gay couples. Except, he was sacked rather than promoted. The judge at the time said legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds couldn’t be justified; it was irrational, he said, and “also divisive, capricious and arbitrary”. Our MPs, apparently, work by different standards.

It’s more common that I think we often notice. Set to be debated in the Lords this week, the government has already said it’ll allow MPs a free vote when the Assisted Dying Bill gets to them. This is standard for abortion votes. Being a Member of Parliament sees your opinion on other people’s bodies matter – and when it comes to “policies of conscience” you get to listen to yours and use it to tell the rest of us what to do.  

It translates to how parts of the media report on the policies. This week began with the Daily Express reporting “MP outrage” over one such issue: the case of an abortion at 39 weeks. It was an entirely legal medical procedure as the pregnancy either carried “a grave risk to the life of the mother” or had “a severe abnormality” but this sort of detail wasn’t overly important. What mattered was how our MPs felt about it.

“We have a Jekyll and Hyde approach to disability,” said Labour MP Rob Flello. “On one hand the entire country can be united in praise of paralympians. On the other we can permit the abortion of children at nine months simply for the crime of having a disability. This law desperately needs some sanity.”

No matter that none of that makes any sort of sense, Flello gets to say those words out loud – and (thank you, democracy), if legislation to reduce abortion rights got to Parliament, vote nonsense into law. 

It isn’t just the privilege we give religion that’s the problem, it’s the lack of respect we give equality. I for one blame democracy. And society. Every last one us. It’s only when we allow the right to control our own lives to be up for debate that what an MP thinks of it matters. How is my right to marry or have a child or not even a legal question at this point? Take politics out of a woman’s body, a gay honeymoon, or even a deathbed. Nicky Morgan and her ilk can then believe whatever they like.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.