Last night (or rather, this morning — between midnight and one o’clock) I was doing the newspaper review on the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio 5 Live. The second reviewer was John Cooper QC, a left-wing barrister. I’ve been on the show before with John — mainly discussing the absurdities of the European Convention on Human Rights — and obviously the BBC thinks we achieve a lively debate. In fact we seemed to spend more time on current issues as they cropped up than on any formal review of the papers.
We talked (of course) about moors murderer Ian Brady, and the tragic death of Winnie Johnson, the victim’s mother who spent nearly half a century searching for her son’s body, but died of cancer without finding him. We talked about the plight of Tony Nicklinson, the patient with locked-in syndrome, who has just lost a court case demanding the right to die. We talked about Sunday trading, and school playing fields, and the Dominic Raab/Priti Patel book criticising the work ethic of British employees. Somehow with all that going on we never quite got round to the topic I’d picked from the front pages, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Predictably, Cooper insisted that Nicklinson couldn’t be accorded the right to die, because it might lead to vulnerable sick and elderly folk coming under pressure to do the same. That’s a bit like arguing that no one should be allowed to drive, because some people drive irresponsibly and some vulnerable pedestrians (and others) get killed. As Stephen Nolan rightly insisted, the solution should be safeguards for the vulnerable — not a blanket denial for everyone.
Cooper’s position arguably represents discrimination against the disabled. Since the 1961 Act, suicide has been decriminalised. An able-bodied person has the right, if they wish, to take their own life. But that right is denied to a person like Mr. Nicklinson, who is so seriously disabled that he is physically incapable of taking his own life. We go to great lengths to ensure that disabled people have the same rights, in our society, as the able-bodied, but apparently Mr. Cooper does not think that applies in Mr. Nicklinson’s case.
Contentiously, I raised a related question with regard to Ian Brady. He also wants to die (although for different reasons); is seeking to refuse food; and is being force fed. He wants to move from his psychiatric detention facility to a normal prison where he would be able to starve himself. I wondered what social or moral purpose is served by not allowing Brady to starve to death.
Coopers’ position was predictable: the Prison Service has “a duty of care”. But does one fulfil a duty of care by preventing Brady from choosing to die? Certainly he seems to think that his best interests are served by dying. Then Cooper argued that it would be invidious for the Prison Service to have to decide which criminals were to be allowed to starve, and which not. But surely clever lawyers like Mr. Cooper could devise a suitable protocol — perhaps some kind of judicial review — which could make a case-by-case judgement? These are deep questions.
I had wanted to raise two related stories on transport costs, and as I spent some time thinking through the implications, it seems a shame not to share my reflections.
Some papers carried a story about Coalition MPs in revolt over rail fare rises, and deluged with complaints from commuter-belt constituents. Meantime the Indy reported on a campaign by airlines against the hikes in Airport Tax — which could add £360 to a long-haul family holiday. The airlines argue that high charges depress demand and cost more than they’re worth. They’ve asked PwC to conduct some research on the issue.
Surely economic recovery depends on the ability to travel — whether it’s commuters getting to work, or companies looking for new export markets. William Hague advises businesses to “get on a plane”, but the government sets barriers in their way.
The poor apology for an excuse on airport tax is the eco-warrior’s green mantra: “Cutting carbon emissions”. Yet raising rail fares presumably has the opposite effect, as commuters are driven to use their cars. And soaking the traveller doesn’t stop with rail fares and airport taxes. We have the iniquitous fuel duty escalator. And we have the government’s failure to address the airport capacity question — as Boris Johnson put it, they’re “pussyfooting around”.
It’s not just British exporters flying abroad. It’s foreign investors visiting the UK. With rising costs and limited capacity, we seem to be setting out to deter business and investment. And we shall all pay the price.
P.S. I sent a draft of this piece to Mr. Cooper, who has responded in robust terms objecting to my description of him as “a very left-wing lawyer” (so I dropped the “very” from the draft). This despite the fact that he’s a human rights specialist who supports the ECHR; Chairman of the League Against Cruel Sports (perhaps “Cruel Sports” should be in quotes); and a former Labour candidate. But nothing shows his leftist/statist attitude better than his implicit but automatic assumption that the State, rather than the individual, should have the right to decide in cases like that of Mr. Nicklinson.