A week of work experience with my local Member of Parliament last summer exposed me to the ugly side of politics. “So, Mr Freer” I asked casually whilst filing some papers “You voted against the Dubs Amendment?”
The Dubs Amendment was a piece of legislation that would have allowed around 3,000 child refugees, flooding out of Syria having endured harrowing conditions in the civil war, into the UK to be reunited with their families after months of trauma. It was a movement that I supported passionately, and was yet to hear any rationale behind denying young refugees that right. “Well” he shifted uncomfortably “I’d received a lot of emails from the public asking me to vote against it, so people must have felt that it was the right thing to do”. I persisted “And you personally, Mr Freer? Did you feel it was the right thing to do?”
The silence was deafening.
One of the greatest adversaries to a principled democracy is politicians’ intention of self-preservation. Recognising that their constituent voters essentially dictate whether or not they remain in power, many Members of Parliament completely fold to whatever the majority of their constituents support, no matter how morally indefensible it may be. Their own sense of morality? Ignored entirely. As long as voting the way that the public desires allows them to be re-elected at the next general election, many Members of Parliament are willing to pay no attention to their internal moral compass whatsoever.
At first, there may appear to be nothing unethical about this. After all, is it not the job of a politician to represent the views of his or her constituents? But there lies a fundamental problem with this brand of majoritarian politics – voters will only ever pressure politicians to do what is in their own self-interest. Many are pushed to ignore the needs of people in other countries entirely, with Conservative MP’s calls to scrap the foreign aid budget (even for former British colonies) serving as a the most recent example of this. We should be able to trust politicians to enforce morality in that situation and do what would benefit the greatest number of individuals on a global scale, yet most give in to the temptation of blindly following the self-centred calls of the public.
So, whilst Mr Freer’s own conscience may have forced him to think of the young refugees displaced from Syria, having suffered from war crimes and other deplorable human rights abuses, the immense voting power of citizens who were concerned that their own standard of living would diminish if refugees were allowed into Britain coerced him to vote the other way. If moral responsibility was considered on a global scale, Mr Freer would have ignored calls to keep refugees out and stoically voted to allow them in, despite the potential of it getting him unseated at the next election. But this was not to be the case, as Mr Freer joined 286 other MPs in voting against the amendment, which ultimately never passed.
Little peculiarities like this are indications of a much larger problem in foreign policy – a startling lack of ethical decision-making by our leaders. In arms exportation, for instance, Britain insists on selling weapons to some of the most oppressive regimes in the world. From £7.7bn of arms sales in 2015, the biggest buyer was Saudi Arabia, a theocracy which has brutally slaughtered rebel movements from within its own country and supported the exportation of murderous Wahhabi terrorism, all using British weapons. While the West prides itself on being a champion for equality and human rights, we recklessly export cluster bombs and other destructive weapons to unstable, authoritarian nations all over the Arab world. It is evident that, for our politicians, the supposedly inalienable rights of fellow human beings come second to a couple of extra billions in government coffers.