Ann Widdecombe: A question of conscience
Liam – as we all know – has always been a courageous and clear-thinking fighter on any issue in which he has been involved. I, for one, was pretty confident that he would not toe the line on the Ann Milton memorandum calling on the Government payroll to vote for what she has chosen to describe as the Department of Health policy. To my mind it was undoubtedly backdoor whipping and decidedly in breach of the policy honourably held for over forty years by the Conservative Party.
We could always be proud of the fact that there was a vast difference between Labour and Conservatives on matters of conscience on pro-life issues. Regardless of the views of our leaders, Conservative MPs were always allowed a free vote.
The only time ever that the Conservatives have been whipped on a pro-life amendment was in1990 when an attempt was made by a group of Labour MPs to introduce an amendment to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland as a clause to the first Human Fertilisation & Embryology Bill. As a result Northern Ireland MPs of all parties (there was not one exception) united and called for Margaret Thatcher to defend the Northern Ireland people’s right to decide the abortion issue for themselves. It was the only issue on which the province's parties (at that time) agreed and Margaret Thatcher respected their stand. Consequently, the Government adopted an official stand against the Labour amendment and we MPs were whipped to vote against it.
However, it was all quite open and based upon respect for the will of the people of Northern Ireland. It was not the kind of hole-in-a-corner manoeuvre we are seeing today. Even then there were MPs who abstained and one, Robin Squire, voted against the Government - and nothing was said.
Margaret Thatcher was not pro-life. She voted for the Abortion Act and subsequently supported it. However, she always held her colleagues in high respect and it showed in the way she protected their consciences. This same respect was held by Iain Duncan Smith, John Major and William Hague and we bow to them.
One of the problems at present is the fact that a small group of members of the present Government joined by an even smaller group of Lib Dems leading them by the nose have no concept of any possible Christian or pro-life vote. Moreover, as their policies show they have very little respect for the Christian conscience.
They are making a dangerous mistake as shown by the demise of Dr Evan Harris at the last general election – then MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. He had every right to feel confident. He had a majority of 7,683, but the Christian Churches made it quite clear they were going to lobby to remove his majority.
Catholics and Evangelical churches – led by a woman vicar - banded together in a major campaign. They delivered a leaflet giving Dr Harris’ voting record to every home in the constituency which was paid for by their parishioners (not from church funds). I have to say that the only Anglican I heard of supporting Dr Harris was the former Bishop of Oxford who is pro-abortion and pro embryo experimentation as his votes in the House of Lords testify.
In the event most people were of the opinion that the good Bishop’s intervention (in the form of a letter of support) did Evan Harris more harm than good. He lost the election to a young Conservative, Nicola Blackman, who obtained a slim majority of 176 votes. It meant that the Christian churches had shifted almost 8,000 votes.
Conservatives should not imagine that pro-lifers and the Christian churches are not ready and able to promote similar campaigns to that which saw the demise of Dr Harris. It would be tragedy if the party allowed itself to be led by the nose on pro-life issues by a few LibDems - representing a party which is incapable of getting itself into power without thumbing a lift from the Conservatives - or (we should not forget) from Labour.