TORY LEADER Michael Howard has expressed his support for destructive experiments on human embryos, driving a wedge between himself and his party’s Christian supporters.
His public remarks in favour of the controversial practice of “spare-part” cloning — in which human embryos are harvested for their stem cells before they are destroyed — also marks a rejection by Mr Howard of the brand of ethical conservativism that secured a second term of office for American President George W Bush.
After the presidential election earlier this month, polls revealed that American voters were more concerned about social issues rather than the “war on terror” and turned out in force to support Mr Bush’s policies opposing abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage.
The Republican president was successful even in winning the support of Catholics from challenger John Kerry, the first Catholic presidential candidate since John F Kennedy. Mr Bush’s achievement was all the more remarkable given that American Catholics had until then traditionally voted Democrat in large numbers.
Mr Howards remarks in Westminster last week came in spite of warnings from MPs of the urgent need to learn from the American election or risk losing votes.
Mr Howard used a speech to the Conservative Women’s Committee on ambitions and values to underline his personal commitment to a secular agenda. He argued there was a moral case for embracing research which could lead to cures for degenerative diseases. “I believe we have a duty to offer hope to the millions of people who suffer devastating illnesses,” he said. “We mustn’t be frightened of change or nostalgic about the past — we must be optimistic about the future. Politicians must create the right framework so that the great potential of science can be harnessed for the benefit of mankind.
“With the life expectancy of the average Briton now around the mid-70s, society has a responsibility to enhance the quality of people’s lives as they grow older. I know many people are concerned about stem cell research. They are fearful of meddling with what they see as the stuff of souls. I respect those concerns. But I also believe we have a duty to offer hope to the millions of people who suffer devastating illnesses like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, Alzheimer’s and heart problems.” He said there were “no easy answers” but it was necessary to “have the courage to do what we know to be morally right”.
Afterwards, Prof Jack Scarisbrick, the national chairman of Life, the pro-life counselling charity, said Mr Howard’s leadership was “disappointing”. He said Mr Howard was “backing an immoral procedure quite gra tuitously” just as the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine had said that adult stem cell research, which does not involve the destruction of human life, held out the greatest promise of cures for diseases.
Prof Scarisbrick said: “Under his leadership, one had hoped that family and traditional values would have been reaffirmed but he shows no signs of doing that.
“George Bush’s success points to what we have said for a long time — that for politicians to be pro-life is a vote winner. People gain votes because they are upholding traditional values and he [Mr Howard] doesn’t seem to have grasped that.
“One of the problems for the Tories since Mr Blair grabbed all their clothes was to find policies which would have made them stand out. When you say ‘what do the Conservatives stand for?’ many people today would say ‘I don’t know’.
“The true heir to Mrs Thatcher is Mr Blair. The obvious chance for the Tories to identify themselves is to take a strong stand on Europe and stand for those values on decency that have been a feature of English life and that most people in their hearts really want.” Edward Leigh, the MP for Gainsborough, expressed a similar view in a letter to The Daily Telegraph. “Mr Bush won a second term by appealing to voters who care about traditional family values,” wrote Mr Leigh, a Catholic who this month led the unofficial Tory opposition to the Civil Partnerships Bill that gives same sex couples similar rights to heterosexual married couples.
“I personally am opposed to American and British involvement in Iraq. But whatever my reservations about Iraq, if I were an American I would have voted for Bush because he was the candidate who clearly supported Christian values. In Britain, many people used to vote Conservative because the Tories were seen as most supportive of family values. We are losing those voters. They might not go out and vote Labour or Lib Dem, but, by staying at home, they will continue to cost us elections. More than four million people attend church every Sunday. How many of these were among the 12 million who didn’t vote in 2001, when the difference between Labour and the Conservatives was just over two million votes? There are those who believe that the Conservatives will only gain office if we fully embrace the tenets of political correctness. But such ultra-liberal values are a million miles away from the everyday beliefs of ordinary people.
“George Bush was relent lessly criticised for his bold statements on moral issues, but it was a political masterstroke. He kept his nerve, ignored the liberal media elite and listened to ordinary people. That is what the Conservative Party must do.” Tim Montgomerie, an adviser to the Centre for Social Justice, an institute set up to advance “compassionate Conservativism”, agreed that the Tories had to change.
He said: “We wouldn’t have been flatlining in the polls at 30 per cent since 1992 if all was well with the Conservative brand.
“Modernisers in the Conservative Party are halfright in that they have recognised ahead of other people of the need to change but they are 100 per cent wrong in how they have recommended change, which is to go down a route which is libertarian. I think the real modernisation path is social justice — that’s consistent with the Party’s finest traditions of Disraeli and Shaftesbury and means using faith-based groups, strengthening the family, teaching right and wrong in schools and taking a tough line on drugs.” A defence of the Tories under Mr Howard was advanced by the unlikely figure of Tory backbencher Ann Widdecombe, a Catholic convert who famously remarked that there “something of the night” about a man under whom she served as Prisons Minister when he was Home Secretary .
She said she could understand why people would be concerned about widespread support among Tory MPs for the Civil Partnerships Bill and by pronouncements in favour of stem cell research but pointed out that Mr Howard’s remarks represented his personal opinions and that Tories were allowed a free vote on human cloning as a moral issue.
She added: “The vast majority of people in the lobby who voted against the Mental Capacity Bill and the Civil Partnerships Bill were Conservatives. We still offer the main opposition. I would like to see us take a strong stand on these issues. I would like the main opposition to these Bills being provided by the Conservatives.” Paul Woolley, the director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, said the Conservative Party was the only mainstream political party yet to sign up to the libertarian agenda.
He said its commitment to the reversal of the liberalisation of the drug laws under Labour, the presumption of equal access to children after marital breakdown, and to faith schools, were all indicators of a “compassionate Conservative agenda”.