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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A father’s murderous rage, the first victims of mass killers and Trump’s phantom campaign

From the family courts to the US election campaigns.

On 21 June, Ben Butler was found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie. She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely ­accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

 

Red flags

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Shooter stats

On the same theme, it was no surprise to learn that the Orlando gunman who killed 49 people at a gay club had beaten up his ex-wife. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, looked at FBI data on mass killings and found that 16 per cent of attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence, and 57 per cent of the killings included a family member. The Sandy Hook gunman’s first victim was his mother.

 

Paper candidate

Does Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exist if he is not on television saying something appalling about minorities? On 20 June, his campaign manager Corey Lew­andowski quit (or was pushed out). The news was broken to the media by Trump’s 27-year-old chief press officer, Hope Hicks. She was talent-spotted by The Donald after working for his daughter Ivanka, and had never even volunteered on a campaign before, never mind orchestrated national media coverage for a presidential candidate.

At least there aren’t that many staffers for her to keep in line. The online magazine Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reported that Trump currently has 30 staffers nationwide. Three-zero. By contrast, Bouie writes, “Team Clinton has hired 50 people in Ohio alone.” Trump has also spent a big fat zero on advertising in swing states – though he would argue his appearances on 24-hour news channels and Twitter are all the advertising he needs. And he has only $1.3m in his campaign war chest (Clinton has $42.5m).

It feels as though Trump’s big orange visage is the facial equivalent of a Potemkin village: there’s nothing behind the façade.

 

Divided Johnsons

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Johnson family Christmas celebrations. As Boris made much of his late conversion to Leave, the rest of the clan – his sister Rachel, father Stanley and brothers, Leo and Jo – all declared for Remain. Truly, another great British institution torn apart by the referendum.

 

Grrr-eat revelations

The highlight of my week has been a friend’s Facebook thread where she asked everyone to share a surprising true fact about themselves. They were universally amazing, from suffering a cardiac arrest during a job interview to being bitten by a tiger. I highly recommend repeating the experience with your own friends. Who knows what you’ll find out? (PS: If it’s juicy, let me know.)

Peter Wilby is away

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain