I do like the idea of more free votes. I explained yesterday why allowing free votes or encouraging more independence might make it impossible to construct a budget, get through tax increases or spending cuts, and do other unpopular things. There are many other issues where free votes are possible, because the outcome is not central to a government’s task or do not knock on to other policies and concerns.
Traditionally Parliament has most free votes in so called matters of conscience. These are issues where the splits are not on party lines, and where either result can be accommodated without wrecking government policy generally. Parliament has kept the death penalty off the Statute books by free votes. Criminal justice can continue with or without it. Parliament has free votes on matters like gay marriage and abortion, where religious and other beliefs are often passionately held and not on party lines.
This Parliament, with a Coalition government, poses the question of whether there should be more free votes on matters like the constitution. Given the level of rebellion on the issue of a referendum on the EU, the decison to whip the vote on the Conservative side did not have a great deal of traction with the Parliamentary party. Now the party is to be whipped to vote in favour of the Referendum Bill. However, you can also argue that big questions like the nature of the voting system and whether Scotland stays or leaves the Union are ones where a serious party of government should have a unifying position which most of its MPs can accept.
I would like more free votes, but accept there do have to be sufficient things a party of MPs can agree so it can be a governing or opposing force with some coherence on many issues that matter. The secret of leadership is finding those things, and offering free votes where unity cannot exist in good time. In a Coalition by definition there have to be more free votes for backbenchers.