Fergal Keane 'Where in the rules does it say that personal beliefs can be allowed to act as a bar to an MP's selection?'

When 'liberals' undermine freedom of conscience

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We know that our politicians have opinions. Some of them even have deeply held personal convictions.

We know that our politicians have opinions. Some of them even have deeply held personal convictions. The theory is that over the course of elections and parliamentary careers we are able to discover what our politicians think (at least those who don't wrap themselves in the self-serving blather that too often passes for debate these days).

It can seem that many haven't an independent thought in their heads. But I think it is more accurate to say that MPs do have profound and challenging thoughts, but few are willing to reveal them. Too many are timorous creatures, afraid of the whips and newspapers and addicted to the promiscuous embrace of public opinion.

Like spin doctoring, this malady has been with us for a long time. It did not suddenly appear in 1997, but is a miserable consequence of large majorities and the feebleness of the human condition. Man strives to be popular. He is a creature of the tribe who needs to belong. And there is nothing he craves more than the approval of the tribe's elders. That is the way to a seat by the fire and a full stomach.

Nowhere is this addiction to group more obvious than on the glutted back benches of government. The brave are few. Standing up to the whips may get you noticed by the media, but the approving mumbles of newspaper writers can be a serious obstacle to the ambitious MP, or even the old timeserver who has no ambition other than to hold on to his or her seat. The passionate speech lauded by the broadsheets for its singular courage may read like a suicide note come reselection time.

How marvellous it is then to witness the sudden revolt of the backbenchers. Cheer, democrats everywhere. The suffocated outrage of years has erupted. The battle over the select committees was not the brave, essential but ultimately useless tilting at windmills of solitary figures, but the birth of a new political animal: New Backbencher – an altogether rougher, tougher beast, his hour come round at last. In a political system suffocated by the centralisation of power (and this again did not begin in 1997) the return of Mrs Dunwoody and Mr Anderson to their positions is a seismic event. The parliamentary select committee, like its more powerful cousins in America, is democracy's answer to the politics of tribal patriarchy. If Parliament exists to hold the powerful to account, the select committees are its linchpin.

Why, then, am I unable to be entirely happy at the end of this momentous week? I feel a distinct unease, and it has to do with the behaviour of one of the committees. As it happens, it's a committee whose activities I tend to follow more than most, simply because it deals with issues and areas of the world that dominate my working life. The Select Committee for International Development exists to monitor the dispersal of Britain's overseas aid budget and the workings of the Department for International Development. As a consequence it is heavily involved in issues like human rights, Aids and Third World poverty. In a political and media culture obsessed with domestic issues, the committee often struggles to get attention for its work. And it does some very important work.

How sad, then, that it has captured attention this week because of what appears to be an unpleasant case of moral intolerance. Here are the limited facts (there is a difficulty here because none of the Labour MPs involved seemed willing to talk with the press): among the committee's members is Mr Edward Leigh, a Conservative MP who also happens to be a Roman Catholic. He has been active on human rights issues involving oppressed Christian minorities in places like Indonesia and Egypt. But he is equally happy to campaign for non-Christians, for example the brutally exploited ethnic minorities of Burma. Together with a protestant Ulsterman, the Reverend Martin Smyth, he initiated a Commons debate on the abuse of human rights in Burma.

Mr Leigh is said to be a conscientious Member of Parliament. I don't know the man, but when I heard him interviewed on Radio 4 the other day he sounded sensible. Asked about his "strong views" on contraception, he said he had never made a speech on the issue in his life.

Mr Leigh suggested to the interviewer that he might actually be surprised by his views – alas, there wasn't the time to explore what he meant. As a devout Roman Catholic, Mr Leigh supports the teachings of his Church on abortion, that is, he is opposed. This is a point of view held by a substantial number of Catholics and non-Catholics. It is hardly an eccentric or an extreme view.

But according to Mr Leigh, his candidacy for the chairmanship of the Select Committee on International Development was defeated because of his moral convictions. He has characterised it as discrimination on the grounds of his Roman Catholic faith. I'm not sure if that is strictly accurate. It is probably more accurate to say that he is being discriminated against because a majority of MPs disliked his views on abortion, and, to quote The Daily Telegraph, feared he would "take a Vatican line" on contraception.

The "Vatican line" on contraception is nothing short of daft, especially when confronted with the crisis of Aids in the developing world. Telling African villagers they shouldn't use condoms when you have 23 million HIV-positive people in Southern Africa is a woeful response. The vital importance of contraception as a weapon against Aids is something the select committee is obliged to confront as it monitors the use of British funds in the Developing World. The only question that matters is whether Mr Leigh's views would make it impossible for him to lead a committee, the majority of whose members have strong views about the Vatican, contraception and abortion.

On radio Mr Leigh made a convincing case that, whatever his religious views, he would act as the committee's servant. There would be no peddling of private agendas. I believed him and find it deeply troubling that the right of individual conscience on a question like abortion might be used to exclude a committed MP from the chairmanship of a select committee. If there was a clash between his conscience and his work, Mr Leigh would be faced with a simple choice: to ignore his conscience or to resign.

He has as much right as anybody to make a personal moral choice. In this case it is those who call themselves "liberals" who seem to be refusing to recognise this right. The censorship of private convictions is nauseating whether it comes from the left or the right. Where in the rules of the select committees does it say that personal beliefs can be allowed to act as a bar to an MP's selection? And where do you stop when we start down that road?

As a believer in liberal values, I think the committee should follow the example of the Government on Mrs Dunwoody and Mr Anderson and swiftly reverse their ban on Mr Leigh. If he is willing, as seems the case, to declare publicly that he will act in an unbiased fashion, then let him be chairman. Barring that, it would be nice if one of those MPs who voted against him could write and tell us why. Those who hold the Government to account on our behalf shouldn't be above explaining their own behaviour.

The writer is a Special Correspondent for the BBC

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