Questioning obligations and democracy

asks whether we should follow our legal or moral obligations and what this choice means for democracy

In September 2012 Labour MP Malcolm Wicks died. He was a well-known and influential man both in his constituency and the party as a whole; having represented Croydon North since 1997 and having worked in Blair’s and Brown’s governments. I myself even had personal contact with him whilst completing a work placement in his office.

Despite writing his Autobiography (‘My Life’) in the years leading up to his death, it is only now that his memoirs are being published, and already they are causing quite a stir. They reveal some particularly interesting information which, according to Frank Field, identifies Malcolm as responsible for the introduction of child benefits. Whilst acting as junior civil servant at the Home Office in 1976, Malcolm made the poignant decision to pass on some cabinet meeting minutes to Frank Field, who was head of the Child Poverty Action Group at the time.

Field then passed on the information he had been given to the New Society magazine, and the story was made public. Whilst his actions severely breached the Official Secrets Act, which Malcolm had signed on joining the civil service, Malcolm maintained that leaking the cabinet papers was the correct decision. As social justice was an area Malcolm was particularly dedicated to, child benefits held particular importance to him. In his memoirs he remains adamant that the Labour government had to be outed for their inside manipulation. Obviously the governments’ handling of the situation had convinced Malcolm that he needed to make a stand using means outside of parliament.

Of course it can be argued that a leak from almost 40 years ago does not impact us today. However, this story brings up many questions.

Should we act on our moral or legal obligations?

It was a huge breach of contract to leak the information but, in my opinion, the outcome was positive. Child benefits are fundamentally a good idea because they mean that mothers have money to care for their children should their partner choose to not share his earnings. They also act as a lifeline in times of economic hardship, where people may find themselves impoverished due to a lack of employment opportunities rather than choice. I am not arguing that it’s a perfect scheme, in fact the means testing makes much more sense to me, but it was a move in the right direction at the time. Malcolm also had some prior knowledge in the field of disclosing information and uses this to further justify his actions. Furthermore, the whole point of living in a democracy is that when the government oversteps a mark and manipulates parliament, or the public, then constraints should be enacted and this is precisely what Malcolm did.

Obviously each case needs to be dealt with individually. These are my opinions and others will definitely have a different view but I hope through my explanation I have made it clear that it is vital that we continue to question and discuss how our country is run.

One comment

  1. Has this piece been severely edited down? The introduction and background on Wicks was all very nice and interesting, but reading through, when you actually get to the supposed topic of the piece “Should we act on our moral or legal obligations?” I was surprised to see there was only two more paragraphs, one of which says pretty much nothing at all. You mention your beliefs and explanation you apparently set out, but I’ve having a hard time seeing where they are. The only sentence that really seems to relate to the question rather than just being about how great child benefits are is the last sentence of the second to last paragraph.

    It’s a shame, I was quite interested to hear what you had to say on moral and legal obligations, especially after the whole Wicks story.

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