Politics & Policy

British Conservatives Are No Friends of Unborn Life

A pro-life campaigner holds up a model of a 12-week-old embryo during a protest outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, Northern Ireland, October 18, 2012. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)
Westminster overturns abortion law in Northern Ireland. The pro-life cause is more Whig than Tory.

This week witnessed what could well be the last stand for unborn life in Western Europe. Until March of this year, Northern Ireland had been the last holdout against an encroaching culture of legal infanticide in the region — a veritable Helm’s Deep of human dignity. This tiny six-county sanctuary for the boys and girls who require nine months’ grace before they can join us on this mortal coil was vanquished at last earlier in the year without the express electoral consent of its citizens. It might have been expected that the opening of this new frontier of death would have been the work of a hard-left party in either Great Britain or Northern Ireland. American conservatives prone to misty-eyed reveries about the “special relationship” or the Atlantic Alliance will be disappointed to learn that the perpetrator was, in fact, the British Conservative party. Polls indicate that there is, indeed, an appetite for the liberalization of abortion laws in Northern Ireland, but not to the degree that was foisted on her citizens by Parliament.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed in 2016 after the two major parties failed to agree on a governing platform. Repeated elections failed to resolve the collapse because of the province’s unique constitutional arrangements, whereby the two largest parties are mandated to form a coalition government. As a result, the devolved prerogatives of the province reverted to the British Parliament in Westminster until the assembly could be restored. The principle of devolution in the United Kingdom is roughly inverse to that of federalism in the United States. There are enumerated powers delegated to the governmental chambers of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, while Westminster retains all responsibilities not explicitly designated to the Celtic assemblies.

One of Northern Ireland’s devolved powers is its provenance over social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage — it is a far more socially conservative place than either the rest of the U.K. or the Irish Republic. The legislation instantiating the temporary assumption of these prerogatives by Westminster passed under the auspices of the Northern Ireland Act in July of last year. The act was amended by a Labour party MP Stella Creasy to include provisions to bring Northern Ireland into line with the more liberal abortion regime of the British mainland. This in spite of a ComRes poll of October 2018 indicting that two-thirds of women in Northern Ireland do not think Westminster should be interfering with abortion law in the province, regardless of their position on the moral question at hand.

From an American vantage point, the proper response of any discernibly conservative political party fortunate enough to be in government when an amendment like this is floated would be to send it packing with several helpings of loquacious rhetorical condemnation for good measure; if not for the sanctity of life, then at least out of a basic respect for decentralized decision-making. Alas, it is simply not in the nature of the modern British Conservative party to do anything of the kind. The amendment passed with minimal resistance, 332 votes to 99, at a time when the Conservatives held 317 seats in the House of Commons and were wholly dependent on their coalition with the pro-life Democratic Unionist party for their governing majority. This would not be the last time that the DUP (partly owing to their own artlessness) would feel the conservative dagger in their back. As William Harcourt, leader of the Liberal party at the end of the 19th century, put it, “the Conservatives, mark my word, never yet took up a cause without betraying it in the end.”

A document published by Her Majesty’s Government in March of this year outlined “a new legal framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland,” spelling out the specific provisions that are now in effect for ending unborn lives in Northern Ireland: “access without conditionality to abortion services up to 12 weeks gestation (11 weeks + 6 days),” “access to abortion services up to 24 weeks gestation (23 + 6 days) in cases where the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy” (presumably not of the risk to the child), and “access to abortion services in cases of severe fetal impairment (SFI) and fatal fetal abnormalities (FFA) with no gestational time limit.” The authors of the document slip in to the phraseology of abortion zealots with almost unconscious ease. The language of “decriminalising” and “reproductive healthcare” is used throughout.

Of course the institutional actions of the Conservative party can never be wholly divorced from the decisions of its leader. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (I kid you not) goes by “Al” among his family and friends but has chosen to present himself to the British public using the middle name least likely to have him mistaken for an eleventh-century lieutenant of William the Conquerer. He is not a leader that any social conservative would want as chief magistrate of their country. In “Boris’s Baby Problem,” an article in the British magazine of ideas The Critic, David Scullion asks, “Why does the government want so much abortion in Ulster?” During his leadership election last year, the prime minister disappointed a Conservative party member who challenged him on the issue by confirming that he still held to his socially liberal position. This in contrast to his leadership rival Jeremy Hunt, who at least wanted to halve the legal time limit for abortions in the U.K. from 24 to twelve weeks. Johnson’s position in this case is extreme even by the standards of the British mainland. A ComRes poll of 2017 showed that 70 percent of women want the time limit for abortion at the time the poll was taken be lowered and that 70 percent of parents want the introduction of parental-consent laws for girls 15 and under to get abortions. This majority consensus has been nowhere reflected in the Conservatives’ governing agenda. It is also worth noting that in 2004 the British newspaper the Mail on Sunday claimed that Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt, one of Johnson’s many mistresses, had two abortions, the last one paid for by Johnson while he was the arts spokesman for the Conservatives and party vice chairman. He was fired from his front-bench position for lying about it to the party leader, Michael Howard.

I write all this to make the simple point to social conservatives that the British Conservatives are not your friend. The Northern Ireland Assembly, now back up and running, voted this week to overturn Westminster’s imposition of a liberal abortion regime, but to no avail. The supremacy of U.K. legislation over and against laws that apply specifically to Northern Ireland obtains in this circumstance and Parliament has no intention of allowing the people of Northern Ireland to live under their own locally endorsed laws in this case. Speaking after the symbolic vote taken against these measures in Belfast this week, Paul Givan, a DUP MLA (member of the Legislative Assembly), argued for the regulations to be overturned: “The regulations imposed by Westminster have led to Northern Ireland having the most liberal abortion regime in Europe,” he said. “This approach undermined the devolution settlement, but worst of all facilitated the ending of so many precious lives. That is something that the majority of people here in Northern Ireland are against.”

Apart from this act of sheer cultural domination, worthy of the Obama Justice Department, perpetrated against the most socially conservative enclave of the country, there is a broader point to be made here about British conservatism. The shorthand term for the Conservatives in Britain is the “Tory party.” It is worth noting that in Nathaniel Greene’s diary entries during the Revolutionary War, he refers to the conflict as one between Whigs and Tories far more often than he does as one between the British and the Americans. If the broad church of conservatism in the Anglosphere is united by a vision of government as the framework for ordered liberty, there is a faction for which order predominates as the priority (Tory) and a faction for which liberty predominates (Whig). The Tory impulse likes hierarchy and stability, and retains a sense of aristocratic noblesse oblige that was driven from these shores a long time ago. The Tory élite are by and large patrician, privately educated, and paternalistic in their attitude toward their fellow citizens. They are comfortable with a bigger state that uses its monopoly on violence more liberally to look after the “lower orders.” One consequence of this attitude is that the prizing of local liberty and the geographic dispersal of power so central to the American conservative tradition is much more muted in the United Kingdom. The fact that one of the U.K.’s constituent nations would prefer local autonomy in this area is likely to fall on deaf ears in the British Conservative party. The one-size-fits-all abortion regime foisted on the United States by Roe would be unlikely to offend Tory sensibilities. They usually devolve power to the regions only in order to head off secessionist politics.

One of the patrician Tory technocrats mentioned above, Ken Clarke, when faced with the possibility of having to make yet another concession to the pro-life DUP, told a journalist some years ago that “you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it’s no way to run a civilized society.” This is the attitude that prevails toward social and (in American terms) political conservatives in the Tory Party. There are honorable individual exceptions, but, for the most part, when it comes to social issues, they might as well be Democrats. As the pro-life movement fights its heroic rearguard action against the culture of death across the world, they should expect no help from our old allies across the pond.


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