CMQ - February 2005

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The Ruling Few

Lord Butler of Brockwell served as secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service under three prime ministers from 1988 to 1998; an experience given to few and an illustration of his undoubted sagacity and reliability. His now famous report on the discrepancies between British intelligence, government. government rhetoric and the reality of Sacldam's weapons of mass destruction, has not received the consideration it deserved. Many considered it to be a whitewash, but ' his basic findings are extremely important and are not favourable to the government.

Strangely, they provide great insight into the manner in which the government conducted the recent debate on the Mental Capacity Bill. In an interview with Boris Johnson (the Spectator 11 December 2004) he enlarges on his view that the proliferation of political appointees in Whitehall can lead to the arguments of fuddy-duddy civil servants being ignored. Good government, in his view, means bringing to bear all the knowledge and the arguments you can from inside and outside, debating and arguing them as frankly as you can, and trying to reach a conclusion.

He continued 'There is too much central control in this government... the Cabinet now - and I don't think there is any secret about this - doesn't make decisions. The government reaches conclusions in rather small groups of people who are not necessarily representative of all the groups of interests in government'.

Perhaps we are now really in a state once described by Lord Hailsham as 'an elected dictatorship'.
Our disquiet mounts further when the ex- Cabinet secretary declares 'the executive is much too free to bring in a huge number of extremely bad Bills, a huge amount of regulation and to do whatever it likes - and whatever it likes will get the best headlines tomorrow'.

The three line whip recently imposed by the government on the Mental Capacity Bill is illustrative.
What can we do to influence this abuse of parliamentary power? The traditional way has been to lobby MPs with constant letters or requests for interviews. As the opposition are doing exactly the same, the Member, who may not deeply informed on ethical matters and is probably confused anyway, readily embraces the dictates of the party.

Again, it may well be that Members are much impressed by current advances in medical technology; casting doubts on their consequences requires more than a simple attempt at persuasion.

Indeed it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the often major attempts at such lobbying in the past.
It was noticeable that some of the media correspondents, when discussing the Bill, referred to a strong coalition of lobbying groups in its favour. But in fact it was only a small group comprising strange partners such as Age Concern and the Alzheimer's Society. Indeed it was most encouraging to observe that the major pro-Life groups did join forces in a coalition and made a last minute appeal to MPs to vote against the Bill which, they said, will legalise euthanasia. The joint statement, which was obviously ignored by the media correspondents, said 'The Bill represents a wholly unacceptable loss of legal protection for people with mental incapacity'. We are all familiar with the inability over the years of these highly dedicated groups to combine in opposition to the various abortion Bills; but perhaps, now, a new focus i's appearing from which greater influence will be manifested. The opposition has often noted this diversity with obvious satisfaction.

Perhaps this new Life Coalition can be cemented under one agreed federation with the object of disseminating its views to a wider audience.

Has there been a sufficiently audible declaration from the leaders of the main religions against the likelihood of euthanasia being legalised in the very near future? We frequently receive admonitions against poverty, or the conditions of prisoners, but a solemn declaration that the withdrawal of nutrition and fluids from a person who is not dying constitutes euthanasia might have greater impact on both the Ruling Few and the MPs. Progress was made last September with a joint declaration from Dr. Rowan Williams and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor strongly opposing any suggestion that assisted killing was compassionate. But now Professor Gill, a senior adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken in favour of euthanasia. He told the House of Lords select committee that there was a 'moral justification' for euthanasia and assisted suicide in exceptional cases. The letter from the Archbishop of Cardiff to the Lord Chancellor received the usual legal reply, when ethical decisions are to be taken, of confusing motive with intention. The government's proposed amendment to prohibit decisions 'motivated by a desire to bring about (the patient's) death' will not prevent intentional killing. What the person intended to do (ie kill) by their act or omission is what matters in the eyes of the law, not what was their motive or desire. It would be well nigh impossible to unravel the actual motives in the average euthanasia situation; so the plea of `best interests' is generally applied. This plea should only be used if its definition includes preservation of life, restoration of health and alleviation of suffering. In America, there is a supreme Ethical Committee, known as the President's Advisory Committee, to which problems relating to profound technical advances can be referred. Australia, France and many other countries have similar committees. They do not have statutory powers, but serve as a highly important advisory institution in making bio-ethical decisions. Such a body has been considered in this country, in the past, but its institution has not received firm support. Obviously its constitution is all important, but with a firm core of leading bio-ethicists, including representatives from the recognised faith groups, a start could be made. The President's Committee seems to have gained an important influence on the American scene and has two eminent Christian members, Professor Robert George of Princeton and Doctor Nigel Cameron, a prominent Evangelical.

Such a Committee would go far to prevent the Ruling Few using a three line whip to promulgate their ethical purposes.

Edward Norman, in his seminal book `Anglican Difficulties', brilliantly exposes the current situation. In his view the modern state is a confessional state: it has simply chosen to replace identifiably Christian teaching with the incoherently rendered tenets of humanism. As a simple example, he quotes the problem of experiments with genetic engineering which once (had such engineering been known about) would, in a Christian state, have been justified according to a formulation of moral understanding supposedly and intentionally derived from Christian teaching. They are now accorded a moral basis drawn up by State - appointed 'ethical' consultative committees who appear to determine their much - vaunted moral priorities by whatever is perceived to be of material benefit to humans. They do not adduce their recommendations from a recognisable body of philosophical doctrine. Instead we have a randomly accumulated mass of regulatory agencies whose only common characteristic is that they are obviously secular. Thus the House of Lords select committee joins the HFEA as another agency of the Ruling Few.


Edward Norman, Anglican Difficulties, Morehouse Publishing, A Continuum imprint, 2004.