Political Notes: The fuzzy lines of `issues of conscience'

IN THE space of just four years in the late 1960s capital punishment was abolished, male homosexuality was legalised, and the laws on censorship, divorce and abortion were all liberalised. For Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary for part of the period and facilitator of the changes, the reforms made Britain a civilised place in which to live. For many others, the rot had set in.

Seen from the 1990s, the changes of the 1960s do not appear as dramatic as they did at the time. Most were messy compromises, riddled with caveats and exemptions. Male homosexuality might have been legalised but the new law did not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland or to members of the armed forces or merchant navy; the minimum age of consent was set at 21, five years higher than for heterosexuals; the definition of private (as in "between consenting adults in private") was very strict; and the laws governing soliciting became even tighter.

Yet despite these qualifications, and for good or ill, the parliaments of the 1960s were reforming parliaments. The same epithet is likely to be applied to the parliament elected last year. The Crime and Disorder Act has removed the death penalty from the civilian crimes for which it remained on the statute book, whilst (almost unnoticed in the media) the Human Rights Act will make it impossible for the death penalty to return, short of Britain's renouncing the European Convention on Human Rights.

There have been overwhelming Commons majorities in favour of lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16 and banning hunting with hounds. Neither has yet to become law - the hunting bill ran out of parliamentary time, whilst the Lords over-turned the decision of the Commons on the age of consent - but both issues will return to the parliamentary agenda this session; they have time, and the weight of a mass of votes, on their side. The odds are still on both becoming law by the end of the parliament. Changes to the law on divorce and abortion also seem likely.

It is usual - though not automatic - for there to be free votes on these issues within Parliament, for the parties not to issue instructions on how to vote but to leave MPs to their own devices. This is almost universally seen as a Good Thing.

It is, though, not clear why these issues should be treated as a breed apart. Justifications usually hang on two points. First, that these issues are somehow different, that it would be wrong to instruct MPs how to vote on issues which affect their consciences. Hence the phrase "an issue of conscience", which is how they are usually described. Yet this is a weak argument: the dividing line between issues which involve one's "conscience" and those that do not is, at best, fuzzy, at worst, nonexistent. Votes on military action - such as the one on Iraq in February - are routinely whipped. MPs must have peculiar consciences if sending troops out to kill or be killed does not affect their consciences, but the hunting of bunny rabbits does. If we are willing to whip the former, why not the latter?

Second, the issues are said to be non-party, to be somehow above politics. But in most cases this is not true. Last year's vote on hunting, for example, saw just two Labour MPs vote against a ban, compared to 374 who voted for. The Conservatives split the opposite way: all but eight voted against a ban. Division between the parties is nearly always much clearer than division within the parties.

These issues are not non-party at all, indeed, in an age when the parties have converged on many other issues, they provide one of the few clear examples of division between the parties. To pretend that they are somehow not issues of party politics is to deceive ourselves.

Philip Cowley is editor of `Conscience and Parliament' (Frank Cass pounds 16.50/ pounds 35)