Ethics Reflecting Society

I must admit I’d never noticed that our dear Government has a Minister of, or for, Equalities; and I must further admit that when I discovered that it does, I assumed that her function was to ensure that the non-millionaires in the Cabinet suffered no discrimination from the millionaires;  and, if she had time, to protect Straights from Gays.

Her name is Lynne Featherstone, LibDem MP for some remote constituency in North London, and all credit to her for rising to the top in a profession where the prizes usually go to those who excel at male-bonding.   Now that she has reached the top she is determined to show that she is neither a feather nor a stone (this is the first pun ever to grace this column).  This last week she has been putting the church in its place.  It does not own marriage, she said, and it cannot force its own traditional view on the enlightened rest of us.  The people must decide because (and here is the punch-line), ‘It is the Government’s fundamental job to reflect society’.

Untrammelled, presumably, by ridiculous questions about right and wrong; which will come as something of a shock to people who have voted Tory all their lives because they saw the Conservatives as the party of morality and traditional values.  Now, with the full backing of her Tory Prime Minister, Ms Featherstone is proclaiming that morality is simply what society wants.  Such a pity that for three thousand years philosophers from Socrates through Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill wasted their genius trying to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, and justice from injustice!  Why did the mighty brain of Plato never twig what is so clear to Ms Featherstone: the only duty of the Prince is to reflect society?

It is, of course, a very comforting doctrine, because it means that society can do no wrong.  It could do wrong only if it didn’t reflect itself; and even the most LibDem society would find that a trick too far.  Presumably, too, every society which reflected itself would be a good society, whether that be the boozy society, the promiscuous society, the oppressive society, or the misogynist society; or, indeed, one which didn’t believe in equality, and didn’t want an Equalities Minister.  Any society which reflects society is a good society (according to the Government).

The precise issue in Ms Featherstone’s sights is Gay Marriages, and to be fair to her she has made plain that she has no intention of changing religious marriage or of forcing religious bodies to ‘marry’ Gay couples.  But Gays themselves will hardly be entirely happy that the final decision on their right to marry will be based not on human rights, but on whatever Ms Featherstone decides reflects society.  As things stand at the moment, the signs are not good.  One group petitioning against changing the definition of marriage raised 36,000 signatures in four days.  Gays might stand a far better chance with the eternal truths they despise than with the polling and lobbying on which they have pinned their hopes.

But the issue is much wider than the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriages.  On how many other questions are we to change the law so that it more accurately reflects society?  For example, there are alarming indications that a majority of Britons want to bring back hanging.  Shall we change the law accordingly?  Yes, surely, on Ms Featherstone’s principles, but consistency will then demand that we must also have a referendum on membership of the EU, on a complete ban on bankers’ bonuses and on a Bill imposing statutory castration for sex offenders.  The idea that ‘society’ is more humane than ‘law’ is a dangerous delusion.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles north of London (as they say on ‘Deadly Catch’) 17 Buchan skippers were convicted of devising a scam which allowed 70 per-cent of their catch to go unrecorded  and thus enabled them to land £63million-worth  of ‘black’ fish.  No one on the West Coast will shed any tears over the £80,000 fines imposed on the criminals concerned.  For over 100 years East Coasters have been wrecking fish-stocks from the Butt to Barra, and now they’ve brought disgrace and possibly ruin on their own home ports.

But what’s the meaning of the universal sense of outrage over the actions of these men and their on-shore associates?  More, surely, than that what they did was not a reflection of society.  We are appalled at their greed, their lies and their crass selfishness.  We are outraged because they violated our standards of right and wrong.  They didn’t simply violate custom.  They violated the truth; and supposing their conduct was legitimated by some society (Spain, for example) it would still be wrong.  Blinded by greed, they were stealing fish and recklessly jeopardising one of the world’s great food-stocks.  Greed may well reflect a society.  But no society can make it right.

We are in imminent danger of replacing democracy with populism.  The electorate are perfectly capable of judging a parliamentary candidate’s integrity, knowledge, dedication and general political outlook.  They are the experts on MPs.  But the MPs are, or should be, the experts on politics, and voters will not expect to be consulted whenever there is a division in the House of Commons, merely to make sure that MPs’ votes ‘reflect’ society.  Of course, their performance will be scrutinised by the media, by their political opponents and ultimately by the electorate.  But we expect Members of Parliament to be our representatives, not ventriloquists’ dummies; and willing, when conscience bites, even to disown their parties, defy society and face the political wilderness.

That is the ideal.  The reality, unfortunately, is that we’re going to be plagued with referendums: a pseudo-democracy where elected dictators prostitute their wits to ensuring that the precise wording of the question ‘put to the country’ favours their own point of view.

There will be no question asking, Are you in favour of referendums?

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on 2 March 2012.