136 – Liberalism, Conservatism and the Freedom to Choose

One hundred and thirty-six Conservative MPs voted against gay marriage. It was a free vote and it was, they knew, a futile gesture, but they made it anyway.

No doubt some of them genuinely believed (and will, presumably, continue to believe) that gay marriage is inherently wrong. That’s not an opinion I share, but as it happens they’re not the MPs I’m concerned with. The more interesting ones, the ones who surely formed a considerable bulk if not the majority of the 136, are the MPs who voted against because they felt, as Conservatives, that this was something they should be against. Even if, as individuals, they weren’t.

In one way this is a strangely laudable thing to have done. “We only hold our seats because we’re Tories,” they must have thought. “We were elected as Tories, not as individuals, and we will therefore vote as a true Tory should.” Humble to the last, they’ll ignore their own opinions and vote as their inner whip (not to be confused with a conscience) tells them to.

Someone should tell them their inner whip’s got it wrong.

There used to be a time when you were a Tory or a Whig. And then there came a time when you could vote Labour, too. After a while certain “blends” became acceptable – you could be, say, a fiscal conservative but lean socially to the left – but within those boundaries there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre. Either you bought the whole package, or you didn’t buy the package at all.

And that’s where the 136 have got stuck, back in the days where voters bought their opinions wholesale, where if you didn’t like Trade Unions you couldn’t like blacks or lesbians either, where if you hated McDonalds you had to somehow justify Stalinism. They haven’t noticed that the revolution in access to information over the last few decades has brought a corresponding freedom to form opinions. We’re no longer bound by our own views – we can like hunting and gay rights, Barack Obama and Nigel Farage. We can, if we want to, be socially liberal and socially conservative at the same time. We can vote conservative and (without the slightest sense of contradiction) be in favour of gay marriage. Woolworths may have gone, but we’ve never been freer to pick and mix our views.

Whether you like him or you hate him, it’s to David Cameron’s credit that he gets this. The Liberal and Labour MPs who voted against get it too, ironically.

But some of those 136, I’m convinced, just don’t get it at all.



  1. To me, the question is …’were the MPs representing the views of the majority of their constituents?’ Especially in a hung parliament returned by the lowest turnout since WWII.

    Not only the 136 nay-gays, but even those who voted for the motion? Why don’t we have weekly plebiscites on legislation such as this? Why do we actually need a bunch of near hand-picked MPs to vote on such matters?
    Or political parties at all, what with their ludicrously narrow spectrum of a ‘Punch & Judy’ sideshow, and their toe-the-line whips? Thank G-d they didn’t get those out in a debate about gay marriage.

    My inner anarchist ensures my default position to any legislation is NAY, but I really don’t think there should be rules about this, or special statutory benefits for being in a relationship. Love is not a bureaucracy. Don’t make new rules, repeal whichever old ones removed this freedom in the first place.

    However, if a staunch Christian (say) doesn’t want to accept a civil partnership between two homosexuals, why should it be illegal for him not to? Underpinning all social legislation such as this is a forced, we’ll-tell-you-what’s-PC, group-think that has little place in a real pluralistic democracy such as this country could and should be.

    As a citizen, I’d rather have abstained on this vote as it isn’t any of my business and I don’t get much gay support on issues that matter to me. Recognising gay marraige is a minor correction to a statute book that I would take a blowtorch to.

    But were I am MP, I would be very active in polling my constituents’ opinion on any given matter before voting on anything. I would have voted whichever way a demonstrable majority of my constituents wished. THAT is an MP’s job – regardless of what the Whip says – and I haven’t noticed Zak Goldsmith on the streets asking anybody what they think, about anything, ever. But I’m sure he does… (cough, splutter, “bullshit”)…perhaps while he’s spending his £160/week MPs grocery allowance in the delicatessens of this fine seat. Or maybe he was down the Rainbow Arms the whole time. Who knows what he does?

    As goes freedom to choose… can I have tapwater without fluoride, please? Informed consent and forced medication. These issues affect everyone, no matter which side you’re batting for.

    (Sorry, Joel. Loved your original post. Got me all typey, you did. Rather than rant on your blog, I should follow suit and set up my own … I have been somewhat getting nagged to do so. It’s either that or run against Zak! Watch that space…)

    1. Jay – delighted the issue’s wrung such an eloquent response from you. All comments are welcome, and interesting, informed ones doubly so.

      I agree it is all about the constituents’ views. And what I think has happened is that the 136 have said to themselves “my constituents voted for a Tory so they must hold a Tory opinion on the subject. And the Tory opinion would be a ‘no'”. And thus misjudged their constituents, who probably have more varied views than that.

      As for freedom to choose – well, it’s freedom to choose an opinion I was talking about, not an actual policy. Heavens, that would be the end of parliamentary democracy, wouldn’t it?

      As for not accepting a civil partnership, I suppose it depends what form that refusal to accept takes. A government pensions clerk refusing to make the necessary arrangements for a widower because they personally didn’t believe that gays should have those rights would be an abuse of power. You don’t like it, don’t do the job. But if ‘not accepting’ means holding an unpopular opinion, well yes, certainly, that’s fine. I’ve never been an advocate of banning thoughtcrime.

      (Incidentally I gather from my dentist I live in a low fluoride area).

      I look forward to an innovative and thought-provoking electoral campaign from you.

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