By Christopher Hollis, who was a Conservative M.P. from 1945 to 1955 ALOT is talked these days about the conscience of the M.P.whether he is in fact mere lobby-fodder for the Whips and whether, if so, he ought to accept so humiliating a role. In order to pass a judgment it is necessary to make a number of distinctions.
First, an M.P. has a great deal of work to do in the details of committee, in championing his constituents' grievances and the like that has nothing to do with the recording of votes. So when we are talking about how he votes and how he ought to vote, let us remember that we are by no means considering the whole of his work.
However it is with his voting that we are at the moment concerned. Again there are two sorts of votes. First there is the party vote, cast under the direction of the Whip. Nobody who has had any experience in the matter could doubt that a system of Parliamentary Government—particularly with a Parliament of more than 600 Members--would be quite unworkable without some sort of party organisation and party voting. A statesman who is called on to form a Government has a right to some confidence that his measures will be supported by Parliament and by his party, which is presumably the majority party, in Parliament.
Voting in the dark It is also quite Inevitable that on the great majority of divisions Members will have no clear knowledge what they are voting about. The majority of votes are on detailed amendments of intricate bills upon which no one can have an opinion unless he happens to have fulfilled all the details of the debate. Nor • is it possible, if they are to get through their other business, that Members should sit in the Chamber all the time or even attempt to follow any other measures than those in which they happen to take an especial interest.
The Member has no alternative but to get on with his other business in the Library or the Committee room and then, when the division bell rings go into the Chamber, ask his Whip which is his side and cast his obedient vote in accordance with the Whip's direction. The system being as it is, he has no alternative.
Whether the system is as good as it might be—whether there is any point in taking all these quite automatic divisions is another question. But, the system being as it is, the Member does no violence to his conscience if he cooperates with it. It is idle to tell him that he ought not to accept such a party discipline and ought to become an independent.
The simple answer is that if he were an independent he would not be elected, If you want to go into Parliament you have to accept the discipline of one or other of the parties. That is all that there is to it.
Of course if one says that there must be parties and must be party discipline, it does not necessarily follow that the present system is not capable of reform. There are plenty of schemes for the reform of Parliament by remitting to special committees the detailed work that cannot be properly done on the floor of the House and the like and, though no one disputes that there must be party discipline, there are plenty of reformers who think that party discipline is today unnecessarily rigid and that the Whips are put on for many matters which might well have been left to free votes.
There were parties in the nineteenth century but in that aristocratic society there was not the strict party organisation throughout the country that there is today and Members paid their own expenses and were not dependent on party funds. We cannot go back to such a society.
More reality than today
Nevertheless, it did at least mean that Parliamentary debates and Parliamentary votes had much more reality than they have today. In all the great crises of the nineteenth century—Catholic Emancipation, the Reform Bill, the repeal of the Corn Laws, Conspiracy to Murder Bill, Home Rule—it was at the time of the division quite uncertain whether the Government would survive until the figures were announced because there were sitting around on the back benches a number of Members who were not prepared to decide how they would vote until they had heard the arguments of the debate.
Today voting is so automatic—so totally uninfluenced by anything that may be said in the debate—that Mr, Macmillan once suggested that it would really be more convenient to have the division first and the debate afterwards, since nobody paid any attention to anything that was said In the debate in any event and therefore those who were not proposing to speak could go away and need not bother to stay for it. It is very unlikely that any Government will ever again fall as a result of a vote in the House of Commons.
If we are to pronounce on a duty of conscience, we might then well say that it is a duty of a Member to do what he can to reintroduce a greater reality into Parliamentary life but he is not likely to achieve that purpose by reckless, irresponsible voting. The weapon of the rebellious vote is a weapon that is only of effect if it is used very rarely and for very grave causes. If used constantly familiarity breeds contempt.
Any message for Catholics?
These are general points of conscience. Have they any special message for Catholics? In these ecumenical days we must certainly not say that Catholics are the only people who have consciences, Catholics would, of course, be compelled to withdraw their support from any party that passed flagrantly anti-Catholic legislation.
Happily in modern Britain there is no question of any party doing such a thing and there has never been any suggestion that a Catholic was not free to belong to any of the regular political parties. Such controversies as there have been, as, for instance, over Catholic schools, have never been of that absolute kind as to require the Catholic authorities to forbid Catholics from supporting any of the political parties.
There is no likelihood of any issue of such a sort arising. Over the greater number of political, questions religion does not tell the believer what answers he should give but rather what questions he should ask. It bids him make his decision with a view to the public good rather than to private interest but he has to weigh up the evidence and take his decision for himself.
The Church does not tell him whether the mines should be nationalised or the pound devalued or what should be the rate of income tax. Yet, though Catholics belong to all the parties, I think that it can he said that, by and large, of the comparatively few Catholics who in modern times have gone into Parliamentary life a proportion higher than the average have been somewhat independent in their party allegiance. One has only to look back to the example of Belloc.
In more modern times there are such examples as that of Dick Stokes or of Mr. Hugh Delargy. I think that in the Conservative ranks Mr. St. John-Stevas would rightly like to think of himself as a man of independent mind. That is doubtless a large part of the reason why they have not been . very successful in obtaining the high posts of State.
Parliament is to a large extent a game and, though it is not in itself a wicked game, yet it is a game that cannot easily hold the attention of those who have more important things in which to believe. BeIloc used to say that it was not possible for a Catholic to be a gentleman. He said it, it is true, mainly to annoy the then Duke of Norfolk. But it has a truth and in the same way it is hardly possible for a Catholic to devote himself quite wholeheartedly to the necessary make-believe of the party game. If he has a true God to worship he cannot worship so unstintingly the "bitch goddess" of Success.
The extreme discipline
It must, of course, be admitted that, when we talk about the excesses of modern party discipline, it was the Irish — under a Protestant leader, Parnell — who imposed upon Parliament that extreme discipline and who compelled the English parties to follow their example. A main result of 'the Act of Union was that for 120 years England was almost entirely governed by Ireland and the whole shape of the present Westminster Parliament is of Irish formation. Yet, of course, the Irish Members were not concerned to make Parliament work properly. They were rather concerned to see that it did not work so long as it refused to pay attention to the grievances of Ireland.
A Member of • Parliament has to cast his vote on two sorts of issues. There are the party issues and there are the comparatively few issues on which the Whips are off and he is allowed to cast a free vote. It is the custom to say that more matters should be left to free votes than at present happens. Such is on the whole my own opinion, but I think that Members of Parlia ment are on that question entitled to be a little bewildered by their critics.
They are first told that Parliament is now but a rubber stamp and that they should vote according to their consciences and then when — as for instance on the Abortion Bill — the House does vote in favour of a private member's bill the critics turn round and tell the Home Secretary that he is abdicating from his responsibility by leaving such a measure to an irresponsible private Member and giving no guidance. Yet, even if it is sometimes not very clear why one measure is considered as a matter of conscience and another not, no one would in general wish to alter the custom by which matters of conscience are traditionally left to a free vote.
No dogmatic teaching
How should the Member vote on such matters? That he should vote according to his conscience goes without saying? But what ought his conscience to tell him to do? On many of these matters, though doubtless they involve an exercise of conscience, there is no dogmatic teaching of the Church. Thus the Church neither approves nor condemns, say, capital punishment. It teaches that to take a life is a very grave thing, justifiable only in case of absolute necessity. At the time when in this country we had a penal code which imposed the death penalty for many trivial offences Catholics were still denied the vote and there were, therefore, no Catholic Members of Parliament. But I doubt if a Catholic could in good conscience have voted for the death penalty for the theft of a piece of ribbon, but when we come to the death penalty for murder, it is a different question.
If you can convince yourself that hanging is a uniquely effective deterrent then you can argue that if hanging is preserved there will be less killing on the whole and you would therefore presumably be justified — whether or not you would be correct in your judgment — in voting for the retention of hanging. If you merely think that it is no worse than another penalty, I doubt if you would be justified in voting for it merely in the belief that it was cheaper or more convenient than an alternative.
There are other questions divorce for instance or abortion — which involve direct Catholic teaching. On them the Catholic may well say that there is definite teaching of the Church which settles the matter so far as his own conduct goes. But that does not settle his vote as a legislator. There was a time when general public opinion and other religious denominations agreed with the Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and a Catholic M.P. a hundred years ago might well have felt himself under conscience to join those who were fighting against admitting a divorce law for the first time on to the Statute Book.
The divorce laws
But to-day we have a pluralist society. We have divorce laws on the Statute Book. No one suggested that there should be no such law. That being so, it cannot be a Catholic principle to have foolish divorce laws rather than sensible ones. Even though his principles might forbid him from taking advantage of such laws himself, the Catholic M.P. would not be justified in opposing a divorce law simply because it was a divorce law.
He must use his conscience and his judgment to decide what is right. He is not, of course, compelled to adopt an extreme permissive position. Irrespective of the authority of the Church, responsible citizens agree that the breakup of families is a great evil and a great cause of unhappiness. On purely secular grounds they hedge the granting of divorce with strict conditions and the Catholic M.P. is obviously entitled on secular grounds to be as strict as others. But, so far as he is voting to impose a civil law on a pluralist society, it is clearly his duty to make such a decision on secular rather than on Catholic considerations.
Those who opposed the present Abortion Bill made it logically clear that they opposed the so-called social abortion on the ground that it unnecessarily destroyed life, but they made it clear that they would not think it right to oppose a bill that merely regularised the conditions of therapeutic abortion under which it would be legitimate to abort the child to save the life of the mother.
No responsible person thinks homosexual vice to be desirable and no Catholic could think it other than a sin. Yet many Catholics quite reasonably think it undesirable that it should be a criminal offence. Such conclusions follow most logically from the Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty.
We are clearly forbidden to use our voting power to impose Catholic principles on others who do not of themselves accept those principles. We are as clearly commanded to oppose any law, should there be such, which sought to compel Catholics—doctors say or nurses—to do actions which their Catholic consciences forbade them to do.