Does freedom of conscience still exist in our politics?

Former SNP councillor Chris McEleny suggests the disciplining of John Mason MSP over his support for anti-abortion prayer vigils should be opposed by all who support freedom of expression.

The first computer I had, a very slow PC, came pre-loaded with some videos. There weren’t any games on it and there was no social media back then, so that’s how I came to know Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, basically by heart.

Yet it’s another speech he made, just two months before his death, that’s been occupying my thoughts recently. Addressing the priorities of the United States during the Vietnam War he said:

“Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a moulder of consensus.

“On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But con- science asks the question, is it right?

“And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

It could have been either the Scottish or UK Parliament that he was talking about, or indeed any modern Western regime that governs not on authentic principal but opinion polls.

These words seemed especially relevant when I read of the written warning that SNP MSP John Mason received from party bosses for espousing views in support of the right of individuals to take part in silent vigil near places that facilitate abortion.

There is, in my view, a case for the pro-life movement to listen to the lived experience of women that raise concerns about the locations such events are held.

As Christians, we should challenge ourselves to ask if this is the best way to provide compassion and to direct our prayers to improve support for the absolute belief in the sanctity of life in the public square.

But there is not a case for our parliament to curb the right of freedom of expression and assembly. If there were then the government’s tacit support of various marches and processions that occur each summer would not stand up to scrutiny.

In a written warning to Mr Mason, the head of the SNP Group at Holyrood, Stuart McMillan MSP, wrote:

“We would like to make it clear that we absolutely respect your right to hold your views on abortion and your right to freedom of speech and expression.

“We do not, however, believe that you have the right to impose these views on others.

“The verbalisation of your views has caused great distress.”

Quite an astounding statement – we respect your right to have your views and to express them but saying your views out loud merits a two-year written warning?

Still, the drive towards conformity on issues that should be left to an individual’s own conscience is not new. In 2021 the SNP manifesto included a statement in support of abortion.

Back when I was last vetted to be an SNP parliamentary candidate I was asked if I would adhere to the group whip and vote in favour of abortion and the controversial Gender Recognition Act if mandated to do so.

Political parties are entitled to determine that matters such as abortion should prioritise policy over conscience, but if they choose to do so then they have all but conceded that they no longer wish to build a broad church, and they run the risk of telling a significant section of society that they’re not needed or wanted.

Our Scottish Parliament will become a far weaker institution if political parties censure individuals for staying true to their conscience.

If it is only to be a place that accepts the views that are held by the post-material consensus then what for the minority view?

How has progress ever been achieved if not by moulding the consensus as opposed to blindly succumbing to it?

Mr Mason has a position that is neither safe, nor political, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right. And those that believe in freedom of expression and free speech must defend his right to do so, even if they passionately disagree with him.

Chris McEleny is the General Secretary of the Alba Party.

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