Assisted dying is back in the news, with a private member’s bill by a crossbencher, Baroness Meacher, having had its first reading in the House of Lords. This is the fourth bill to go before the British Parliament in the past 15 years. Justice and humanity require that this time it should succeed.
The Times has had four articles on the subject in the past week: two columns in favour, one against and a wishy-washy leader suggesting that the paper hasn’t made up its mind.
A public opinion poll two years ago showed that 84 per cent of people in Britain support doctor-supported help for patients to die in cases of pain-wracked terminal illness. Doctors are 55 per cent in favour and the British Medical Association has recently dropped its opposition to assisted dying.
Countries which have legalised assisted dying, or are in the process of doing so, include Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxemburg and India. In Australia it is legalised in the states of Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, and South and West Australia. In the US it is legal in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Washington State and Washington DC.
Henry Marsh, a leading British brain surgeon and author of bestselling books on medicine, who is suffering from advanced prostate cancer, called for a serious debate on the subject: “Politicians have shown a striking lack of compassion by ducking the issue for too long and are inadvertently guilty of great cruelty.”
What made me want to write on this subject was not the Times articles in favour of assisted dying, excellent as they were, but the one against it, which infuriated me. It was written by a Conservative MP called Danny Kruger. He made claims which struck me as extremely dubious – that doctors charged with helping patients to die might, for example, use experimental drugs which would cause them more pain than they were suffering already.
But it was his main thesis that made me want to challenge him. This was that pain relief in medicine is now so advanced that there is no reason why anyone should suffer – just leave it to the NHS was the bland message.
In that case, I thought, why, in the pre-Covid period, was there an average of one terminally ill person a week going to Switzerland to be assisted to die because they couldn’t bear their pain any longer. And why did brave individuals in the late stages of motor neurone disease or Parkinson’s go to the courts to seek permission for doctors to help them to die if the cure is so easily available.
Mr Kruger was peddling nonsense – and, it seemed to me, cruel and dangerous nonsense. I assumed he was just a crackpot Tory backbencher who could safely be ignored. But I was very wrong about that. Mr Kruger, an evangelical Christian who went to Eton and Oxford (and is a son, incidentally, of Prue Leith) has been head of research at the Centre for Policy Studies, founded worthy charities and published a number of reports on social issues.
Far from being a figure who can be ignored, Mr Kruger has been speechwriter to David Cameron and Political Secretary to Boris Johnson. He now works for Michael Gove in the so-called Department for Levelling Up. Crucially, he is chair of an all-party group opposed to assisted dying.
I hope his opposition fails and that Johnson seizes the historic opportunity to make Britain a more compassionate and civilised society by giving this bill Parliamentary time – as an overwhelming number of its citizens want. The choice of dying in painless dignity is a basic human right that politicians would be cruel to deny.
Bryson’s hymn to Britain
Having covered the length and breadth of Britain in his epic book, Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson finishes with this hymn to an “enchanted island.” I wanted to share this passage, partly because it is marvellous prose, but also because I suspect that, deep down, this is what a great many people who voted for Brexit felt in their bones.
“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain -which is all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologising to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays – every bit of it.
“What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Gardeners’ Question Time, and the chocolate biscuit?
“Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing Welfare State – in short, did nearly everything right – and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure.
“The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things – to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.”
He wrote this in 1995, which is 26 years ago, and some things may have changed. And you may feel that if I share his picture of Britain, why spend the last two decades in Majorca? The answer to that is two-fold: first, I spent my first 65 years in the old country, so I feel that I had the best of both worlds Second, I don’t have Bill Bryon’s lyrical eloquence to write the hymn for this “enchanted island” that it deserves.
The king without a title
One of the headlines had it right about Jimmy Greaves: the king without a title. I have nothing against Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick in a World Cup final, so one can hardly begrudge him his knighthood.
The fact remains, however, that over his career he wasn’t in the same class as Greaves. But then, who was? In his prime, before the dark clouds of drink and depression overwhelmed him, he was a sunny character – as he showed when he recovered and became a successful TV double-act with Ian St John. Sadly, the drink took its toll on his health in his later years.
To my mind he was England’s greatest ever goal poacher, with an unerring instinct of where to be when a chance came, the speed to get there in time and the skill to hit the net. Sharper than Wayne Rooney, even nippier than Gary Linacre.
I was lucky enough to see him score four goals in a game at White Hart Lane and I can still clearly remember him joyfully dancing about. Thanks for the memories, Jimmy.