First, the obvious explanation – party leaderships want to avoid collective responsibility being foisted on them for their conduct on “socially divisive issues”. This rabbit-tremor preserves the innocence and catholicity of the party structures, by very episodic disappearances of the party structure. If your particular representative votes in a way which deviates significantly from your own views – the accusation rests there. Hopefully, come election time, you won’t let the individual’s judgement get in the way of an overriding party preference. The party, after all, can’t be blamed for a dud choice. No point punishing them longitudinally, what’s done being done. We would be missing something important, however, if we exhausted our explanation at this consciously-manipulative, party-evasive level.
What strikes me as the interesting question about free votes is the principle of selection. How do issues become constructed in such a way that they are rendered exceptional, exceptional procedures to be followed in their analysis? The colonic Mike Rumbles offered one account when he justified the creation of the ad hoc ‘Health 2 Committee’ on the basis that assisted dying is a “moral” question, and thus must be handled with parliamentary kit gloves and quite separately from the ordinary, amoral order of work. Patrick Harvie rightly took him to task for the fatuousness of this distinction. Surely the whole work of politics, his argument, is dyed through with ethical implications. While I’d echo those arguments, there is another way we can approach the distinction Rumbles was relying on. It seems to me that it is not insignificant that the binary categorisation which Harvie made a brave attempt to obliterate seems to insulate the usual meat and potatoes of politics from ‘morality’. By reinforcing the exceptionalism of ethical issues in politics, justifications for the unexceptional, unethical and ordinary political choices is in turn reinforced. This theme also ravels, I’d suggest, along the familiar and problematic ‘private/public’ string. By isolating Margo’s bill and sanctioning, through special measures, the emergence of private morality into the public - powers normally exercised are rendered less problematic, less moral. They are public choices, rather than the private whim of individual members imposing their private preferences on a gormless public. It is complicated, but a dialectic of this general sort seems to me to be at work, in what might pass for simple stupidity, informing this talk of legislative ‘morality’.
The thing to bear in mind about all of this is the idea of morality or personal conscience which this discussion relies on. On some versions, this is the little firefly ensconced in head office, casting its arbitrary, subjective light. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who I’ve mentioned before in the context of this debate, styles this idea of ethics ‘emotivism’. One MSP has one preference, another uses a radically different conceptual schema and reaches the same conclusion as the first – while the third tribune rejects both theories and the conclusion reached, based on their own private fancy. This sort of groundless conscience is not, however, compatible with every version of morality. For example, if you are religious and found your views on “natural law” or some objective, cosmologically determined set of values, rooting the conscience in whimsical subjectivity is simply a misunderstanding of morality.
The primary point I wanted to distil from this is that the idea that MSPs are revealing their private conscience through voting is that the usual vocabulary of democratic influence sits less comfortably alongside. Lobbying, argumentation - constituents writing to their representatives anticipating that that representative function involves gauging, somehow, the mood of their district. There is something unnecessarily pompous about imagining Holyrood as a convocation of saints, come together to bring to light their existential musings on the quality of being in the world and handing them down to a breathless Scottish public. Don’t be dazzled by showy citations of conscience. Write to your representatives, e-mail them, telling them what you think. Be sure that you get around to it, and don’t just put it off. Be sure to pester all of the MSPs in your region. As I’ve argued before, you may benefit from a spectrum of opinion in the way a single constituency member wouldn’t permit. Finally, be sure that others will be doing so.
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