If you have ever attended a Carol Service featuring young children, whether in your own formative years or as a proud parent, it is highly likely you have heard the carol ‘Away in a Manger.’ A melody well suited to growing and uncertain young vocal chords, it is a popular choice for children’s choirs and usually ends up sounding as sweet and innocent as the baby they are singing of.
If you are of my generation (ie. born somewhere in the 1980s) and were at all involved in church life between 1995 and 2005 you will have almost certainly come across the W.W.J.D. bracelet fad beloved by young Christians of that time. The bracelet was meant to prompt the wearer to ask, in any given situation “What Would Jesus Do?” On the whole, I think aspiring to act like a man who urged his followers to love their enemies and to treat others as we would treat ourselves, is rather good advice. The trouble is that we are rather good at applying it to some obvious scenarios (not gossiping about the questionable office colleague; being patient with your annoying family member) and find it trickier when it comes to questions like “How would Jesus vote?”
This week former palliative care nurse Gill Pharaoh took her own life at the age of 75 at an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, despite being in reasonable health, not wishing to face the same struggles of old age she had witnessed in working life. When I started this blog, one of the aims I had in mind was to set out my own perspective on the political issues faced by our nation. This post was originally written in response to an entirely different story over a month before news broke regarding this case, but in view of the debate over euthanasia that Gill Pharaoh’s story has started, it feels appropriate to add my voice to the debate.
A bill on so-called ‘Assisted Dying’ was tabled by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer last year, and despite defeat is set to be reintroduced. At present it is illegal for a medical practitioner to assist a person in taking their own life, and (for good reasons) no family wishes to be the test case into whether the state would prosecute a family member who assisted their relation in taking their life.
The debate is heavily influenced by the fact that Belgium has not only legalised euthanasia for elderly citizens who have a terminal or debilitating illness, but has removed the age restriction entirely, thus making it possible for children with serious illnesses to undergo the same treatment. It means that we do not have to speculate on hypothetical scenarios, but have actual instances from real life to attempt to understand the very real pain, difficulty, and discomfort this issue brings.
I was provoked to write this particular post off the back of a news article, reporting that a 24 year old woman suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts was to be recommended for euthanasia by Belgian doctors. While we should of course take care to thoroughly research the news report for factual accuracy, this case struck a powerful chord with me for the implications, if it is true.
Last Easter, my GP diagnosed me with persistent low mood, and borderline depression. It was a crucial step forward for me, as I had not grasped exactly how mental illness worked – that it isn’t purely due to your circumstances, and that it does have a very real physical impact on your health and energy levels. Knowing that I was vulnerable to low mood has enabled me to know that what I feel from time to time isn’t the normal me, and to have coping strategies. I got through that time, and still do, with the love and support and encouragement of my family, my friends, and my church.
What was also crucial however, is that there was no doubt in the minds of the NHS practitioners that they could help me, and wanted to help me. My first assessment was over the telephone, and the immediate reaction of the GP was “We should definitely get you in for a proper examination – you sound like you need help.” From that point on there was clarity and support – a clear explanation of what options were open to me, and a recommendation and referral to a specialist unit (Oxfordshire Mind) who offered specific treatment for the symptoms I was facing.
During the process, they also asked questions that startled me at the time, but make clear sense with hindsight. I was asked if I had considered harming myself or others, had actually harmed myself or others, or had considered taking my own life. It is a tragic truth that for many who need this service, all of these are practical possibilities. And I am thankful that as I worked through this, the motivation of the medical practitioners was to value life – to offer hope to those who were feeling hopeless. I had black days then, and still sometimes have days which feel hopeless – I know what it is like to feel vulnerable. And it very much frightens me to imagine someone like me not being encouraged that life is worth living in the same circumstance.
I appreciate that euthanasia is a highly emotive and sensitive topic, and we do not do the persons most directly involved in the consequences of the debate any justice when we retreat to bipolar platitudes. But as the debate returns to Parliament in our nation, I would begin the debate by saying that no legislation can ever be permitted in this country that would disadvantage the vulnerable. If the recent Belgian case is true, it is not merely an appalling and shocking abuse of human rights, but a gross perversion of the medical profession. Mental illness can be as much a physical affliction as any debilitating disease, but there is absolutely no way a patient suffering from a mental illness can be deemed in a right state of mind to take such a decision. I know from my own experience that the thoughts I have thought in my darkest moments make absolutely no sense when the dark cloud lifts – and our motivation must always be passionately and determinedly to value life – the most basic human right of all.
There is good reason why we should bear this in mind as the Euthanasia Bill returns to Parliament. Several MPs who voted to legalise abortion in the UK in 1968 (including Margaret Thatcher) regretted their decision many years later – not because they thought their logic was wrong at the time, but because they did not believe that abortion would become as widespread as it subsequently turned out. I am opposed to the ending of life on principle, but even more than that, I think it would be a grave disjustice if our legislators passed a law that meant the life of a vulnerable person was now in very real danger.
Today’s blog is in response to a heartfelt observation by one of my friends.I believe he reflects the vast majority of voters – he is not disinterested in politics and recognises the great capacity it has for good, but is bitterly disillusioned. To him, our political class seem to offer nothing but more of the same, and the satirists and commentators offer criticism not alternatives. Understandably, he feels that politics offers little by way of hope, and wanted to know what hope those involved in politics are holding on to. My brief answer is quite well captured the so-called Serenity Prayer: that I would accept what I cannot change, change what is within my power to change, and have the wisdom to know the difference. As I reflected on my hope, three thoughts struck me.
The first was that my hope is not completely in politics. Hope is tied to the idea of tomorrow being better – that somewhat the ills of today will not prevail, but instead will be overcome – and the greatest challenge is the human heart. I sincerely believe that both left and right wing politicians subscribe to this. This is why education is so important to the left, and individual responsibility is so important to the right – the left believe in the fundamental goodness of the human heart, that society corrupts it, and that education overcomes it. The right believe the human heart to be fundamentally flawed, but that a society which requires individuals to take responsibility for their actions minimises the hurt caused and encourages humanity to be the best it can be. While both have a point, I do not set my heart on a false hope – instead as a Christian I look to a future hope when the human heart is renewed, and accept that in this life there will be trouble and strife – or to put it another way, I do not feel disheartened when things don’t seem to change and the world seems horrible and hopeless.
That said, I also recognise that politics can still make a difference. The Earl of Shaftesbury is an example that I particularly admire. His commitment as a Christian to a future hope did not cause him to withdraw or to give up. Rather, in view of that hope, he gave his entire energies to making the difference that he could. He was instrumental in bringing forward legislation to get children out of factories and coal mines, and established a myriad of societies, including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I could list other Christians who have contributed to public life, most notably William Wilberforce’s work to abolish the slave trade, simply to reinforce the point that even if Christians have their hope placed in the future they can (and should!) make what difference they can now. It is also easy for all of the failures of government to overlook the fact that government does a lot of good – not least in the defense of the realm and the upholding of law and order. Even beyond that, history is ripe with examples of educational and welfare reforms by all parties that have made a real and significant difference to the wellbeing of society.
My third point however is something we should all bear in mind – politics is a nasty business. The reason is very straightforward – while it would be wonderful to believe all politicians were altruistic, the use of political power attracts people with less honorable motives, and often corrupts even those with good intentions. Even in my young political career I recognise the challenge that not everyone is motivated by the right reasons – and sometimes it is not within your power to do anything about it. I also recognise human frailty and the capacity for mistakes – the Earl of Shaftesbury poignantly opposed the 1832 Great Reform Act – our political heroes sadly are not perfect! Of course this is discouraging – but there are countless examples from Wilberforce to Rosa Parks of people who faced major opposition and discouragement – but they stayed in the game, they persevered, and in time they made a difference.
The limitations of politics do not make any less important the very real differences those in politics can make. It is part of the reason I am encouraging debate as well as engagement – while I can forgive new Labour for some of their well-intentioned policies, I cannot forgive them for turning politics into a narrative where if you dare to express reservations, ask questions, or suggest a contrarian view, you are somehow a bad person. Politics exists because we do not agree and tough choices have to be made, which is why I have little patience for the likes of Russell Brand and the Greens (and formerly, the Liberal Democrats) suggesting that ‘new’ government will somehow make a difference. When the new leadership steps up, in whatever form it is, they still have to decide what the government should and should not do; whom and what to tax, and by how much; and what laws we should live by – they still have to make difficult choices, and you are still going to have groups in society who take decisions.
I am an optimist – but I am also a pragmatist – and I speak from very painful personal experience that it is very easy to be discouraged. A year ago my doctor diagnosed me with ‘low mood’ – in essence a mild form of depression. It makes me likely to see the worst, not the best, and to be easily discouraged. My wife is very good at getting me to change perspective – I am the type of person who gets to the end of the day, and is sad because of the things I did not get done, rather than pleased because of the things that I did get done. She reminded me as I thought of politics not to be disheartened because of what I could not change, but excited for the difference I do make, however great or small that may be. And really I think that is what my hope is for politics – for everyone:
- Don’t be discouraged – because the capacity of good men and women to bring change is incredible
- Don’t be deceived – because politics cannot change everything
- Be encouraged – because the change you can make, matters
2015 has been marked red in my diary for the last four years with one clear message: ELECTION YEAR.
With the election only 124 days away, I am opening this crucial year with a feature on one of the very first articles I read for my course on Voting Theory, which acknowledged a rather surprising contributor to development of electoral democracy – the adoption by the medieval Church of the conclave to elect a new Pope. Now, with my reformed Protestant theology I was not expecting that I would be very warm towards the article, but the explanation of how the Conclave came about was a fascinating insight into how the historic church used a form of democracy to achieve unity – while of course acknowledging that when the church was to divide in the reformation, one of the issues at stake was Papal Primacy! If one sets aside the religious aspect however, the problem faced by the medieval church was rather similar to what all modern democracies face – making a choice.
If you will forgive a brief history lesson – the Conclave was introduced in the first instance because the Church had to reconcile the fact (notionally at least) that God had appointed one person to the role of Pope, but that the Cardinals held sincerely different beliefs whom that man should be. A democratic vote was judged the means of acknowledging there was a division, and achieving a united result. In actual fact, the subsequent development of the distinct features of the Conclave vote, namely the necessity of a two-thirds majority, a secret ballot, and the Cardinals being locked away until a decision is reached, were all intended to achieve a final result that would be clear, achieved quickly, and would not be challenged afterwards.
The church may have been authoritarian in nature, and the era described many centuries previous to us, but there are some good lessons to learn from the choice by the medieval church to adopt a voting mechanism to choose their leader:
1. Division is to be expected
One of my favourite quotes is attributed to former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour: “Democracy presumes a people sufficiently united as to bicker.” There is a worrying trend in modern politics to criticise opponents for daring to have a contrarian view – which in my view is both an attack of freedom of expression, and also what Sir Humphrey would refer to in Yes Prime Minister as ‘playing the man, not the ball.’ Let’s not be disheartened that division occurs, but rather be glad that we can enjoy earnest debate, reassured that every government will be challenged and held accountable for the decisions it has taken, and embrace the opportunity each of us has to assess the personal performance of our local MPs.
2. Elections are meant to ultimately unite
The intention of the Papal Conclave was (and still is) to unite the church in support of the man elected as the Pope, regardless of whom the man might be. The General Election of May 2015 will be exactly the same – it will tell us whom the country has chosen to entrust to the task of governance for the next five years, whether they should govern alone or in some form of coalition; and potentially even whom the principal opposition should be, or with whom the largest party should form a coalition. At the moment we can only guess, but by the morning of Friday 8th May 2015 we will know.
3. The choice is ours
With that in mind, we should remember what a great privilege it is that we have the opportunity to choose who represents us in Parliament, and therefore to determine indirectly whom will form the next government. The obvious flaw of conclave was the limitation of the franchise to certain Cardinals – whereas the vast majority of us enjoy the right to vote for our MP. We’re going to be divided in our sincerely held beliefs, but we’re also going to achieve a clear outcome by the end.
I would not be so arrogant as to attribute sole success of democracy to this part of the Church’s history – but when we ask what Christians have done for us, we can certainly learn from this aspect of their history, and take to heart the lessons for today.