Appeasing MPs and the Sorry Death of Conscience; Commentary

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Byline: SIMON HEFFER

MORE than 200 years ago, the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke made the definitive statement of the role of the Member of Parliament: that he is the representative, and not the delegate, of his electors.

Burke despised the view that organised political parties might try to mandate their MP to vote or speak in a certain way. To him, the MP was a human being like any other, with a conscience like any other, and he had the right to exercise it - irrespective of party considerations.

We have come a long way since Burke's time. For today, in effectively seeking to legalise euthanasia, we have a government that wishes to whip its MPs to support this policy.

Fifty years ago, such an act of bullying insolence would have been unthinkable: but now such arrogance simply serves to emphasise how much Labour MPs, in particular, are considered to be the tools of ministers.

Tony Blair's henchmen have indicated that they do not consider the Mental Incapacity Bill, and its proposed provision for 'living wills', to be a matter of conscience.

Such an attitude is quite stunning.

Traditionally, Parliament and the whips of all parties have almost always considered any issues that touch on life and death, on ethics, morality or theology, to be beyond politics and allowed MPs to exercise their own individual consciences.

However, this New Labour government now seems determined to argue that no one's conscience can be allowed to prevent it getting its own way.

And even when the case for proposed new laws such as those on living wills is argued with such incompetence - as displayed in the Commons yesterday by David Lammy, the junior minister responsible - an over-weaning government shows no inclination to admit it might just have misjudged the whole question.

Sadly, Labour's attempts to abolish individual conscience have increased with stealth over the past decades, whether the party has been in power or in opposition. This trend is all part of the party's insidious twin obsessions: total control - over the public, its own MPs and peers - and political correctness.

It started in the 1960s when the small number of Labour MPs who opposed the abolition of the death penalty were heavily leant on to conform to the Party's anti-hanging view.

A little later, any Labour MP who exercised their conscience in protest at the legalisation of abortion was ostracised and reviled.

Similarly, in the 1980s and 1990s, when radical developments in embryology and fertility techniques meant that women's reproductive rights became a controversial issue, anyone who raised the ethical questions about such 'progress' was ridiculed and swept aside.

Likewise, anyone with reservations about the reduction in the homosexual age of consent was advised to obey the prevailing moral - or immoral - climate.

Then, last year, anyone who questioned the Government's decision to go to war in Iraq was vilified by Labour's establishment. The truth is that conscience is no longer seen as a consideration in contemporary politics - a point Mr Blair seemed to underline last month when he said the personal morality of ministers was no longer relevant to their survival in office.

However, the failure to have a free vote - the means by which individual conscience is traditionally respected in the Commons - on the Mental Incapacity Bill is an alarming new departure. …