Links of the Day…

A selection of articles that I have enjoyed over the last few days…

How to be a judge – Spinning Hugo

Key Figures In British Engineering History Who May Or May Not Have Led A Secret Double Life. Part 1 In A Series Of 1 – Why Miss Jones

With style and a dash of daring, the new SNP MPs rise to battle for their own little corner – Chris Deerin

It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy – Fredrik Deboer

They’re Trying to Be King of the Mormons – Matt Canham, Thomas Burr


Michael Gove on Justice


Image: Legatum Institute (

Michael Gove gave his first speech today in his role as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. Speaking at the Legatum Institute, Mr Gove set out some big picture proposals, giving an indication of his direction of travel for the coming months/years.

While there was little in terms of specific policy detail, his speech did offer some insight into his vision both for the legal system and for his approach to his role. Here are few of my take-aways:

1) A change of tone. I’ve long been a fan of Mr Gove. I am a supporter of his education reforms. However, much of his good work as Education Secretary was overshadowed by the tone and manner in which he approached his role. His adversarial approach saw him do battle with a whole host of established figures within the education system. I’m sure that much of this was unavoidable given the reforms he was championing but it seemed at times he deliberately sought-out a fight and relished the confrontation. His speech today was of a very different tone indicating that he would not be replicating his former approach. He cited and praised numerous senior legal professionals highlighted the good working relationship he has with them.

2) A Robin Hood justice system? Several times during his speech, Gove hinted that he would like to see the wealthiest legal firms ‘contribute’ more than they currently do, in order to help the poorest in society have better access to justice. Gove was careful not to get drawn into the specifics but hinted at a light-touch solution – such as encouraging an increase in pro bono work done by the big firms – rather than heavy-handed legislation or taxation that would compel them to do so. This is undoubtedly a worthy ambition…making it work (including getting buy-in from the big law firms) will be very tricky.

3) Working with – not against – the system.  Several times Mr Gove stressed that he would be working with the legal profession rather than against it. He stated that during his first few weeks in the role he has felt supported by the profession and will aim to be guided by it. He stressed his good relationship with the Lord Chief Justice, as well as his warmness to the proposals within Lord Leveson’s Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings.

It’s early days but it seems like Gove is keen to embrace reforms that are coming from – and are supported by – the legal profession (very different to the head-on battles that characterised his time in the dept. of Education). In answer to a question about the existence of a “blob” within the legal system (followers of Mr Gove’s earlier work will be familiar with this term!) he stated that he has not identified one in the legal profession…yet!

4) Court closures. Gove was clear that some courts will have to close. What will the money saved be used for: simply absorbed into the wider departmental cuts or re-invested back into the legal system…? Again, refusing to be drawn on specifics, Gove stated that various options are on the table, although he did say that the Treasury is sympathetic to his case for re-investment into the system rather than straight cost-cutting.

Speaking with lawyers, think-tankers, and journalists after the speech I noted two common themes: first, positivity about the themes of the speech. Second, scepticism about how Mr Gove plans achieve it all. And that’s the whole ball game. It’s one thing to set out what you want to happen, it’s quite another to deliver it. Time will tell whether he can. I’m sure an anxious legal profession is watching and waiting.

The full text of the speech is available here:

Video here:

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us

Ten minutes in to his party conference speech, Boris Johnson produced a red brick from the shelf of his lectern. His message both verbal and visual was clear. London suffers from a housing shortage; we need to build more homes. In his own words, “One way or another we will need 1bn bricks. So, brick, my little friend, you will not be alone in London.”

BRITAIN-POLITICS-CONSERVATIVESWith the population of the capital set to exceed 9 million, the demand for housing is growing daily. The important question facing the city’s planners and developers is not if new housing is needed but what type of housing is best for London. This matters because a city’s architecture has a profound effect on its residents. Put simply, where you live can determine how you live.

Surveys of people in the UK have consistently found that the large majority of people prefer to live in streets rather than in high rise blocks. Those who live in streets are statistically happier and less stressed compared to people who live in multi-story buildings. Moreover, in conventional streets crime is lower and people report to being more socially engaged compared to people in high rise buildings.

Back to Boris. Earlier this year the Mayor of London took responsibility for the fate of one of London’s most historic sites, Mount Pleasant, which is currently home to the Royal Mail sorting offices. A large part of this site is set for redevelopment and competing plans exist for how to do it.

Royal Mail has invested more than £10 million in its plans to turn the site into a series of large, high-rise concrete flats up to 15 stories high. The plan has been derided by many including Simon Jenkins who wrote recently that “No respect is shown for contour or urban context.” Jenkins goes on to explain, “The Royal Mail proposal has been overwhelmingly opposed by every local body, not least the local Mount Pleasant Association. It is a mockery of localism and drains whatever character might have been instilled in this potentially charming corner of London”.

An alternative plan has been put together by Create Streets and the Legatum Institute. This plan is far and away a better option than the Royal Mail plan. A quick look at the details of the alternative plan reveal why:

  • It includes 730 homes, which provides a higher density than the Royal Mail’s 681.
  • It’s popular. A recent survey of 258 local residents found that 99% of respondents favoured the Create Streets plan over the Royal Mail plan.
  • It’s better value. The estimated re-sale potential over 40 years is estimated at £280m more than the RM plan (which would mean an Mount Pleasant£84m loss for the British taxpayer given that we own 33% of Royal Mail).
  • It gives greater priority to green spaces, especially in relation to the impact on a nearby primary school.
  • It provides better connectivity for residents, with pedestrian routes that are 75% more accessible than the RM scheme.
  • Finally, it’s much, much prettier than the RM plan.

Enter Winston Churchill. In 1943 parliament was debating the plans to reconstruct the House of Commons chamber after it was destroyed by a German bomb two years previously. During his speech, rather than using the event to make a case for modifying the chamber, Winston Churchill argued for it to be rebuilt exactly as it was. Churchill argued for this because he believed the Commons Chamber represented more than bricks and mortar. The intimate design of the Commons chamber, Churchill argued, plays a vital role in preserving and upholding the style, culture, and process of Parliamentary democracy that had existed for centuries.

Churchill recognised that our architecture influences our culture. He knew that preserving the principles of Parliamentary democracy would have a substantial effect on wider society. This is what he meant when, during the debate, he said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.

Back to Boris. Picture the scene, the Mayor of London has both sets of plans for the Mount Pleasant site spread out on his desk. The first is the Royal Mail plan for an ugly, high-rise, concrete jungle, unpopular with local residents; the second is the Create Streets plan for an attractive, popular, design that provides more homes and better value than the first. This sounds like a no-brainer. And yet, bizarrely, Mr Johnson recently approved the Royal Mail plan.

This may not be the end of it. There’s still a chance for a government minister to overturn the decision or indeed for Johnson to change his mind. The excellent Mount Pleasant Association certainly hasn’t given up hope.

Boris Johnson is soon to release a book about Winston Churchill. He will undoubtedly be familiar with Churchill’s advice to parliament in 1943. Seventy years later, Johnson would do well to heed that advice.

RFK on Moral Courage

rfk capetownAfter his election as Senator of New York in 1965, Robert Kennedy began campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. In June of 1966 he travelled to Cape Town where he received a hero’s welcome, being greeted by a crowd of 18,000.

In his speech, RFK positioned the South African struggle for freedom in the context of the worldwide struggle to break down barriers of nationality, race and class. It has been argued that in this speech RFK laid out his core political philosophy.

The speech was delivered to the National Union of South African Student’s Day of Affirmation, an annual protest in support of human liberty and academic freedom in the face of government oppression. It has become known for the section in which Kennedy talked of ‘tiny ripples of hope’ that can ‘build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’

The speech is superb from start to finish, packed full of wonderful prose. However, the section that stood out for me was the section in which he lists the dangers that can prevent people from achieving their dreams. After listing two dangers (futility and practicality), he moves on to the third:

A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.

This is so true – and just as relevant today as it was when Kennedy first said it. The world is full of people who are strong, brave, or intelligent. But the people who change history are those who have the courage to risk their own reputation in order to stand up for what is right.

9 reasons why assisted suicide should not be legalised

Assisted suicide is back on the agenda. Next week, parliament will again debate this divisive issue.

To the casual observer it may appear that the arguments in support of assisted suicide are overwhelming. Several high profile cases in the media combined with a determined campaign from well-funded lobby groups can make it feel like we’ve reached a tipping point. Resistance, it would seem, is futile.

When an argument is clothed in the language of choice, and compassion it can seem hard to resist. But resist we must. Between the savvy PR, large-scale advertising, and celebrity endorsements, we mustn’t forget that the case against assisted suicide is strong and credible.

Here are nine reasons why parliament should resists calls to legalise assisted suicide:

1)      The current law works.

The law acts as a deterrent. It is right for our laws to be devised so as to offer protection to the majority. And yet it is also right for the law to be applied with compassion and understanding. If a person helps to kill another person it is right that the facts of that case are examined. This process prevents people with malicious motivations acting unlawfully. If the facts reveal that a person has acted purely on compassionate grounds, it is highly unlikely that s/he will face prosecution. The recent DPP guidelines have made this clear.

2)      The medical profession doesn’t want it.

If assisted suicide or euthanasia is legalised the responsibility for ending a life would fall to nurses and doctors. And yet, surveys consistently reveal that these medical professionals don’t want to be involved in ending life. The most recent survey of GPs published in February found that 77% of GPs oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide. This makes perfect sense given the very nature of the medical profession is to protect life. The Hippocratic Oath states that medical professionals should “do no harm to anyone” and indeed the Oath goes further to state categorically that doctors should “give no deadly medicine to any one if asked”. Furthermore, the four leading UK medical bodies – the Royal College of Physicians, of GPs, of Surgeons, and the British Medical Association – are all opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

3)      Medical prognosis is not exact.

The question “How long have I got?” is one that many doctors will be sadly familiar with. It is natural to believe that when faced with this question our medical professionals are able to answer very precisely. In reality, however, they can’t. The Royal College of GPs has warned about this stating that the scope for error in predicting how many months a person has left to live “can extend into years”. This means that the clause in Lord Falconer’s bill requiring a six month prognosis is unreliable as a safeguard. The reality is that, despite Lord Falconer’s best intentions, people who have longer than 6 months to live would qualify for assisted suicide.

4)      The law should protect the vulnerable.

For people who are seriously ill or facing death, the security of knowing that the law protects them no matter what their circumstances is hugely significant. A patient requiring regular care can often feel like a burden to those around them. In this case it can be all too easy for the patient to express sentiments along the lines of “everything would be better if I wasn’t here anymore.” In these circumstances the response from doctors should not be, “Ok, let’s talk about assisted suicide; I’ll fetch the paperwork.” We need our doctors to provide reassurance and comfort to their most vulnerable patients. It’s revealing that one of Britain’s most active disability rights campaigners, Baroness Jane Campbell, has said recently, “as a severely disabled person, I fear a change in the law to permit assisted dying.”

5)      Parliament has debated and rejected this several times in recent years.

There is a belief that parliament has deliberately avoided debating this subject. This is wrong. In fact, parliament has debated this issue at length several times in recent years. Three bills seeking to legalise assisted suicide have been considered in the past 10 years and twice the proposals have been put to a vote. Every time this issue has reached a vote, parliament has rejected it. On one of these occasions the debate lasted for over eight hours and included over 90 speakers. In the resulting vote, the proposal was defeated by 148 votes to 100.

6)      The slippery slope is real.

We need to recognise that this measure would be the first step on a very dangerous path. We’ve seen in Belgium (where euthanasia is legal) how quickly the law has been extended. Not only is the Belgian law applied very loosely (specifically to those who are not terminally ill) but most recently it was extended to allow children to be euthanased. I’ve written before on the detail of what’s happening in Belgium.

7)      The ‘Oregon model’ is flawed.

Campaigners in the UK hold up Oregon as the model for us to follow. However, a close look at the Oregon law reveals worrying trends. Assisted suicides in Oregon have quadrupled since the law came into force. Oregon’s death rate from assisted suicide is the equivalent of approximately 1000 cases a year in England and Wales. More worryingly are stories like that of cancer patient Barbara Wagner who was told by her insurer that the chemotherapy drug she had been prescribed was too expensive but if she chose assisted suicide, the cost would be covered.

8)      It’s not just religiously motivated people who oppose assisted suicide.

Some people do object to assisted suicide based on their religious beliefs. Many others object for a variety of other reasons. It is not true to say that the reason this law has failed so far is due to religious motivations. In the last House of Lords vote, 14 bishops voted against the bill. Even if you discounted these votes the measure would still have been comprehensively defeated.

9)      Advances in pain relief & end of life care.

In recent years we have seen significant medical advances in pain relief and end of life care. As such, one of the UK’s leading palliative care specialists, Professor Ilora Finlay has said, “terminally ill patients should no longer have to die with unrelieved pain.” Moreover, we have a first-class hospice movement in this country with a long and distinguished history. That doesn’t mean that they system is perfect – many improvements can still be made – but high-quality care should mean that the vast majority of people can be comfortable in their final days.


It’s important, in conclusion, to acknowledge the emotional complexities of this subject. Arguments in favour of assisted suicide can be very persuasive. Real life cases of people in desperate situations are incredibly moving. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to watch life slowly slip away from a loved one. I remain convinced, however, that neither assisted suicide nor euthanasia is the answer.

Instead we must continue to invest in palliative care and in hospices so that when death approaches we can face it with dignity, love, and compassion. As Churchill said: “you measure the degree of civilization of a society by how it treats its weakest members.” He was right. May the hallmarks of our society be the care, comfort, and compassion we give to those facing their final days.

Elections Matter

Democratic governance is about more than calling elections and it is about more than casting votes. Democratic governance encompasses a wider landscape of rights including factors such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, accountability of institutions and transparency of elected leaders. And when it comes to elections, it also includes the freedom to vote for your preferred candidate without fear of recrimination from the state.

In the UK, we accept these conditions as standard. A quick glance through history and indeed a quick glance around the world today, reveals that we stand among the privileged.

Glance through history - quoteThe former Soviet Union countries held elections for decades. Invariably these elections produced the same results. As John Feffer points out, the Communist Party candidates—or their close allies—won the elections often by farcical margins of 99.9%. Feffer observes the near-upset in 1980 when the Party in Hungary won with only 99.3 per cent of the vote!

While holding elections is a vital ingredient of a healthy democracy, it is only part of the whole recipe. This is evidenced by countries such as Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Sudan, and Kazakhstan, all of whom hold elections but none of whom are categorised as full and free democracies. Despite these exceptions, elections, when they are genuinely free and fair, represent a vital pillar of the democratic system.

The Freedom in the World report by Freedom House ranks nations on the condition of political rights and civil liberties. In their 2014 report, Freedom House categorise 48 countries as “Not Free”. This represents a quarter of all countries in the world and includes nearly 2.5 billion people, or 35 percent of the global population (though Freedom House point out that more than half of this number lives in just one country: China).

The good news is that the number of electoral democracies around the world has risen over the last 25 years. This year, the number of electoral democracies stood at 122, four more than in 2012. The four countries that achieved electoral democracy status were Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Percentage of countries that are electoral democraciesAnd so, while one-third of the world’s population do not benefit from the right to self determination, many of those who do seem to take it for granted. In the UK a huge number of the electorate has disengaged with the electoral process. At the last general election in May 2010, voter turn-out was 65% meaning that over one-third of eligible voters were so unmoved by the choices before them they opted to stay at home instead of exercising their right to choose who governs them. 

Voter apathy is no doubt linked to the behaviour of our elected politicians who must bear some, if not most, of the responsibility. The expenses scandal followed by some high profile criminal cases such as that of Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne caused a lot of damage to politicians’ already fragile reputations. While it is true to say that the vast majority of British MPs from all parties are honest, committed, and hard-working, public perception is undoubtedly swayed by the exceptional cases.

So how should we respond? Today is election day in the UK—local and European. One way to respond is to re-engage with the democratic system. When respect for the political process falls, the best response is to pick it up and hold it high. We can blame politicians if we want. We can even try to blame the system itself. But in a democracy it is us, ultimately, who have the power to make a change. And that is what makes democracy by far the best form of governance ever devised.

Or to consider the same from the opposite angle, as Winston Churchill famously observed: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


This post first appeared on the Legatum Institute blog:
Graph source: Freedom House

Euthanasia: The Slippery Slope is Real

Earlier this month King Philippe of Belgium signed a law that extends euthanasia to children. His confirmation of the new law comes after both houses of the Belgian parliament overwhelmingly approved the controversial measures. The most recent vote, in Belgium’s lower house, produced a clear majority in favour of the law (86 votes to 44).

syringeEuthanasia is nothing new for Belgians. The process, whereby a doctor injects a lethal drug into a patient, has been legal for adults since 2002. The ‘safeguards’ in their law specify that an adult only qualifies for euthanasia if their illness is incurable and their suffering is unbearable. But a closer look at some recent cases shows that these guidelines are interpreted very loosely.

In September Nathan Verhelst was legally euthanased after his sex-change operation went wrong leaving him with “unbearable psychological suffering”. In December, deaf twin brothers Marc and Eddy Verbessem, who were beginning to go blind, were legally euthanased claiming they couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to see each other again. Now, terminally ill children in Belgium can request euthanasia with parental consent.

These developments represent a clear case of a “slippery slope” whereby small, incremental changes have morphed the original law into something much broader – and more dangerous – than was ever intended.

In the UK there is currently a serious attempt to legalise “assisted dying”. The former Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer, has introduced legislation that would license doctors to supply lethal drugs to the terminally ill to assist their suicide.  His Bill is backed by the campaigning organisation Dignity in Dying (formally the Voluntary Euthanasia Society).

Parliament has debated and rejected this issue on many occasions over the last ten years. This time, however, in order to make the measures appear more palatable, Lord Falconer and Dignity in Dying will emphasise the ‘safeguards’ contained in the bill that would limit assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill with a prognosis of six months or less to live.

But these safeguards – much like those in the Belgian law – won’t work. For starters, prognosis for terminal illness is impossible to predict accurately and the scope for error can extend into years.  The truth is that no safeguards will be failsafe.  Even Lord Falconer himself conceded this point when he discussed his proposal on Radio 4’s Today Programme, saying: “I don’t think you can ever have a system that is completely watertight…you can’t be sure [that safeguards will work].

This should set the alarm bells ringing. Perhaps if we were discussing regulations on food packaging we could play the averages. But we are not. This is life and death. Being cautious is not merely advisable, it is vital. When the person sponsoring the law admits the safeguards can’t be watertight, it’s time to think again.

Beyond the legal questions, assisted suicide prompts serious questions about the nature of healthcare. At the heart of the doctor-patient relationship is the understanding that a doctor’s primary duty is to care for and protect his patients. Regardless of the situation, a patient must know that his/her doctor will first and foremost seek to do only what is in the patient’s best interests.

That is why the major medical bodies – the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the British Medical Association – all oppose legalising assisted suicide. As The College of Physicians stated explicitly, a doctor’s duty of care for patients “does not include being in any way part of their suicide“.  What’s more, opinion surveys among medical professionals regularly find at least two-thirds against assisted suicide.

Advocates of assisted suicide refuse to admit the real risk of extension. Claims on the Dignity in Dying website state that, “the slippery slope argument lacks evidence and is illogical” and that it does not stand up as “an argument of any real value.” In light of the evidence from Belgium, it’s now hard to see how this response can stand up.

Evidence from Belgium shows exactly how quickly a law, supposedly limited to terminally ill adults, is rapidly extended to any age and any prognosis. Such a law does not extend choice in healthcare or drive up standards of care, nor does it empower patients. Looking at Belgium, the vulnerable are less protected and ending life has become normalised.

As we continue to debate the issue of assisted suicide in the UK, we should be mindful of the Belgian example where the legal ‘safeguards’ are interpreted loosely and the scope of the law has been broadened far beyond its original intent. The slippery slope is very real.