Mangling together two philosophies that have dominated UK
politics during the past 50 years was always going to spew out some
dangerous ideas. The first philosophy is the public provision of
“cradle to grave” support for our citizens. Overlapping this more
recently has been the belief that a government’s “success” should
be judged by the degree of choice extended to individual
It naturally follows that the “manglers” believe that policies
affecting the manner of one’s death should also fit comfortably
into both philosophies. In other words, they embrace the state’s
role in helping us leave this life in as pain-free and dignified a
manner as possible. However, they also want to satisfy the desire
to allow individuals to exert the maximum influence about how they
die. A worthy aim – but littered with pitfalls.
For instance, Lord Filkin, the constitutional affairs minister,
talking to the Alzheimer’s Society in April, described his latest
proposal for living wills thus: “When faced with a degenerative
condition like Alzheimer’s (these) can provide some reassurance and
a sense of empowerment in the face of difficult and distressing
circumstances”. He went on to talk of “giving people a much needed
element of control”.
There’s a rather hackneyed mantra that originated from the
Conservative PR guru Tim (now Lord) Bell, that “perception is
reality”. Unfortunately, it encourages too many political activists
of all parties to believe that most people are too stupid to spot
rubbish when it is emptied all over them.
If you doubt this, just ponder for a moment the decision taken by
ministers to change the name of the proposed legislation affecting
living wills from the Mental Incapacity Bill to the Mental Capacity
Bill to help calm the critics of the first draft.
And what about the words “living” and “wills”? These “wills” are
not about living; they are about dying. And however you dress it
up, surely what these “wills” may require is that a carer hastens
the death of their charge? Some go further and would regard
themselves as, effectively, murderers.
But at this point I hit a barrier because in many policy areas, I
am a serial “mangler”. Hence, I feel seriously challenged by the
question of choice – or, more accurately, control – over how and
when an individual chooses to die.
At the same time I recognise that the political pursuit of giving
us all more control over our own lives and deaths hits the buffers
when one acknowledges that there are times when none of us will
enjoy that luxury.
This fact is much more obvious on a daily basis to carers and
health professionals than to most of us. For we can largely avoid
thinking too much about the consequences of losing the mental or
physical capacity to care for ourselves and others.
In our society, it is now perfectly possible for large swathes of
the population to have little or no knowledge or contact with the
seriously ill, the mentally ill or handicapped and the dying for
much of their lives. And we are all, of course, fooling
Of course Lord Filkin did not talk about people “fooling
themselves” but talked about giving a “sense” of empowerment. But
it is much the same thing. It is an admission that his aim is to
make a highly vulnerable person feel better by knowing that an
instruction exists that will mean, when they lose control over
their own minds and bodies, they will not have to endure for
It is only natural to feel – and want to express – such sympathy.
Until, that is, one envisages the scene, apparently sanctioned by
Durham Council, where a carer is “instructed” to stand and watch
someone quite literally choke to death. I could find no mention in
the minister’s speech of sympathy for the carer’s plight.
In the UK, not only have medical treatments advanced rapidly, but
also the belief that we are entitled to a healthy, pain-free life.
These are issues for medical staff dealing with the terminally ill;
not for others who care for them, certainly not for councils, nor,
if possible, for judges.
The sooner that those charged with caring for our most vulnerable
people start campaigning for safeguards in the redrafted Mental
Capacity Bill the better. To wait for the first legal case to give
clear guidance may enrich quite a few lawyers. But I would not give
it much chance of fostering relationships of total trust and
confidence between cared for and carers.
Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a Conservative
councillor in the London Borough of Camden.