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.