The government seems to be having problems with the human embryology and fertilisation bill. It appears they were intending to apply the whip, but Catholics, in particular, are objecting and calling for a free vote.

One quote in this article really caught my attention,

Denis MacShane, a former Europe minister, said too much was at stake to
allow a free vote. "I respect the Catholic and other religions, just as
I respect CND and Liberty, but if every difficult issue with ethical
implications is a matter for free votes, then democracy, parliament and
the purpose of government becomes meaningless."

Free votes render democracy meaningless? Oh, have we decided that the party system is necessarily the most democratic system possible? I must have missed that meeting…

I’ve been trying to make sense of it, and assume he means that voters have voted mainly on the basis of party, and not on the basis of their MP’s religion, or ethical position on human embryos. He may be right on that. But I doubt most people voted on the basis of the party’s position on human embryo research either. So what is democratic about a whip on the issue?

This is an issue which involves emotions and principles as well as facts. Personally, I broadly support this kind of research, but I can
understand why some people have a problem with it – not simply on
religious grounds. It raises all sort of questions about how we define
‘human being’ and what that means. I think that society as a whole
should have a say in decisions like this. It’s not enough to blithely
agree to whatever scientists recommend. (That’s why I think science
engagement and dialogue is so important and why we’re developing ‘I’m a
Scientist, Get me out of Here!’

Neither is it good enough for it to be decided by the happenstance of the ethical or religious beliefs of MPs. Especially as MPs are so unrepresentative. Out of 646 MPs, 520 are male. They have never been and will never be pregnant. Isn’t it possible that women might feel differently about the use of human embryos in research? And aren’t those views valid?

I think this highlight a real shortcoming of our system of democracy. The electorate have not been given an opportunity to express a view on the issue and the people supposed to represent us are not representative in key ways. We can’t have referenda on every issue like this, and anyway, that might lead to somewhat unconsidered results, but I think this would be an ideal issue for a Citizens’ Jury.


Andrew Brown · 25th March 2008 at 4:04 pm

The thing is though, we’re not really talking about a free vote are we. We’re talking about who gets to apply the whip; the government on it’s party members, or the Church on their communicants.
And really we’re talking about whether members of the government get to keep their jobs if they defy the government’s collective preferred position.
But I’m with you in saying that it could help to get the views of a citizens’ jury, although my sense is that they’re better on broad brush stuff than individual pieces of legislation.

Sophia Collins · 25th March 2008 at 4:53 pm

Yes, absolutely. But then we can’t really say that MPs who have beliefs (religious or otherwise) can’t vote in accordance with them. I was trying to avoid the religious issue, but what I find problematic is that religious views are being treated as different in kind from other views.
For me it rankles that the whips are talking about making an exception and letting Catholic MPs abstain. Are an atheist’s moral opinions deemed to be less sincere or meaningful than those of a religious believer?
As for Citizen’s Juries – have you looked at the results of the GM jury ( It came up with a complex, nuanced response to a complex, nuanced issue. There’s a far more sophisticated understanding of the subject there than any of the newspapers demonstrated at the time. I think, because they have deliberation and the opportunity to get to grips with the detail, for technical issues like this they are the best way I can see of involving ‘the public’ in decision-making.

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