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by Margaret Taylor
08 April 2024
Liam McArthur: 'MSPs know they must take assisted dying debate seriously'

Liam McArthur | Anna Moffat

Liam McArthur: 'MSPs know they must take assisted dying debate seriously'

The last time I sat down with Liam McArthur it was late 2021 and he’d just launched a consultation on his member’s bill on assisted dying. Cop26 was about to take place in Glasgow and McArthur – the Lib Dem spokesman on the climate emergency – was gearing up to ask the Scottish Government to withdraw its support for a third runway at Heathrow (it refused). It was the consultation he was preoccupied with, though, what with him hoping to convince his parliamentary colleagues that the public shared his view that a complete ban on euthanasia was “not sustainable”.

More than two years later we catch up, meeting in parliament the day before his Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill is published. As it turned out there was a huge response to the consultation, with more than 14,000 people taking part. Though a sizeable proportion – 21 per cent – did not back McArthur’s plan, outright opposing the concept of assisted dying no matter the safeguards that might be put in place, a clear majority – 76 per cent – did, with many recounting in heartbreaking detail their reasons why. 

“What really stood out was the number of people that wanted to tell their story,” McArthur tells me. “Some were people desperately looking for a change in the law that would allow them the prospect to access an assisted death if things got too much, but most of all it was people who had lost a family member or friend in harrowing circumstances.”

It would take a strong conviction to argue against the case these submissions make. Indeed, the evidence from the woman who is haunted by the terror she saw in her father’s eyes, the one-time “daredevil” begging for someone to end his life as he succumbed to pancreatic cancer, is compelling. As is that of the woman who watched her 65-year-old father drown in the “black bloody foam” that engulfed his mouth and nose when the tumour in his stomach burst.

Yet despite McArthur taking pains to ensure safeguards are included, stipulating that only those with an advanced terminal illness and a sound mind would be able to access an assisted death, the arguments against the bill are hard to dismiss too. Last year First Minster Humza Yousaf said he decided to oppose the legislation after meeting with disability groups who are concerned about becoming “the thin end of the wedge”, potentially being forced to end their lives when they don’t really want to. Who wouldn’t be given pause by the thought that vulnerable people, knowing that euthanasia was an option, might feel pressure to take it up? Days before the bill is published, Labour leader Anas Sarwar cites that fear when he says he is “not currently minded to support it”, while on the day it is introduced Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross also voices his opposition, saying he does not believe it contains “adequate safeguards to protect vulnerable individuals”.

Members will be given a free vote when the legislation comes before parliament, but these are hugely complex, nuanced concepts for MSPs to grapple with at a time when MSPs have not shown themselves particularly capable of grappling with hugely complex, nuanced concepts. The passage of the ultimately shelved Gender Recognition Reform Bill descended into an acrimonious mess, with the inability of members to hold a reasoned or reasonable debate leaving the people the law was supposed to protect right back where they had started. Even on seemingly straightforward matters, such as how to recycle empty bottles, rival factions seem predisposed to put up a fight. Is McArthur sure that, in the current climate, his parliamentary colleagues can be trusted to give his bill the careful consideration it deserves?

“Things have been very polarised, but I think that on this issue people understand that the public expects them to take the debate seriously,” he says. “It cuts across party-political divides, which is enormously important. There have been two elections since assisted dying last came before the parliament and in both there was a relatively high turnover of MSPs. About a third of those who are now in the parliament haven’t had an opportunity to debate this or an opportunity to vote on it.”

A group of cross-party MSPs join McArthur in parliament on the day his assisted dying bill is published | Alamy

The first tangible attempt to change the law on assisted dying was made by the late SNP politician Margo MacDonald, who in 2008 had told a BBC documentary that living with the degenerative illness Parkinson’s meant the issue was “not a theory with me”. “I feel strongly that, in the event of losing my dignity or being faced with the prospect of a painful or protracted death, I should have the right to choose to curtail my own, and my family’s, suffering,” she said. Though her 2010 End of Life Assistance Bill was roundly defeated at stage one, MacDonald said the correspondence she received from the public emboldened her to try again and her Assisted Suicide Bill was lodged the following year. MacDonald died before members got an opportunity to debate that version, but the bill was taken forward by Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie before also falling at stage one after finally making it into the chamber in 2015.

Unlike MacDonald, McArthur was not switched on to the concept of assisted dying because he is contemplating how illness might curtail his life, and nor has he watched any close friends or family suffer at the end of theirs. Rather, it was attending a debate tabled by Jeremy Purvis, the then Lib Dem member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, back in 2004 that began to convince him that assisted dying should be “the next liberal reform”.

“I sat in on a member’s debate by Jeremy Purvis, who had attempted to bring legislation forward in the previous session to the one I was elected in,” he recalls. “It struck me that this was what a parliament I had spent my adult life campaigning for should be debating. People were taking seriously an issue of substance and treating it and each other respectfully. They were arguing their case but they were doing so in a way that didn’t resort to party-political arguments. It seemed to me that this is what the parliament should be about and it sealed it for me that this was an issue I wanted to lend my support to.”

At that time McArthur wasn’t a member of that parliament, but he had moved in political circles since graduating from the University of Edinburgh with a politics degree in 1990, immediately heading to London to work for Jim Wallace, then the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland. After two years he relocated to Brussels where, in addition to meeting his wife Tamsin, who at that time was leaving her job at magic circle law firm Clifford Chance to join an environmental consultancy, McArthur worked first in the external affairs directorate of the European Commission and then in a number of EU departments, including the one that was handling the ascension of European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries Austria, Finland and Sweden.  

Things have been very polarised but I think that on this issue people understand that the public expect them to take the debate seriously

“During my time there the ascension negotiations started and the vast majority of my directorate went off to work in the taskforce,” McArthur says. “That meant I probably got a more prominent role in that department than I would have.”

Brussels was, he says, “a fantastic place to be with a very international, transient population” and he worked between there and the UK until 2002, when he took up another job with Wallace, this time as a special adviser in Edinburgh, where his mentor was now not only the MSP for Orkney but deputy first minister and leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats too. When Wallace resigned the leadership in 2005 and announced that he would be leaving parliament at the next election, McArthur took some time to think before deciding that he wanted to contest the seat.

“When Jim announced he was standing down Nicol Stephen [who replaced Wallace as leader] said he would keep me on, but I decided it created a natural break for me,” McArthur, who left Holyrood at that point to do consultancy work, says. “I had no inclination at that stage of throwing my hat in the ring to be selected. I never expected I would stand and I’d given a solemn undertaking to Tamsin that I wouldn’t – I can reel off a hundred reasons why it was the worst thing to do from a work-life balance perspective – but I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t at least have a go at it I’d be kicking myself. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.”

At the time of the 2007 election McArthur’s sons, Calum and Tom, were just seven and four and while his success meant their lives in cosmopolitan Edinburgh – population circa half a million – were uprooted and transplanted to the tiny Orkney island of Burray – population circa 350 – McArthur felt certain the move would go well because it mirrored the one his own parents had embarked on in the late 1970s.

Though he had started life in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh, where his father, Bill, ran a screen-printing business and his mother, Sue, was a lecturer at Stevenson College, McArthur moved to the Orcadian island of Sanday when he was 10 years old. Bill, who would go on to become the cartoonist for weekly magazine Fishing News and daily newspaper The Herald, had decided to try his hand as a fisherman and the family, which at that time included McArthur, his older sister Samantha, and younger brothers Dugald and Fionn, headed north. The family, which was joined by youngest brother Matthew while living in Orkney, settled into island life well, with Bill steadily setting his creels further and further afield and Sue taking a teaching job at the local junior secondary. The move changed the family dynamic too, though, with McArthur finding himself boarding away from his parents for a month at a time within three years of arriving on Sanday.

“I was in primary six when we moved up there and at that stage I was delighted to find there were composite classes in the school and that I’d be in the same class as my sister. She was less enamoured,” he says. “Sanday is one of the larger small islands and has a junior secondary school so I didn’t have to go away until after I’d done my second year there, but in order to do exams you have to go to Kirkwall. At that stage we were mostly boarders at the school hostel and went home once a month. I was 13 when I went so the experience was better than it would have been if Sanday hadn’t had a junior secondary and I’d had to go at 11, but for many people it was quite challenging. At that time there was just one ferry for all the outer isles so on home weekends children could be on the ferry for eight or nine hours on a Friday before doing the reverse on a Monday.”

McArthur moved to the Orkney island of Sanday when he was 10 years old | Alamy
It was a situation McArthur wanted to avoid when he took his own family to Orkney, which is why he and Tamsin, who works in PR, chose to settle on Burray, moving into a house a field away from the one SNP health secretary Neil Gray was brought up in and sending their boys to the school Gray’s father had campaigned to keep open. (Not long after being elected as an MSP, McArthur gave the young Gray, who at that time was still a student, a tour of the parliament, though stopped short of trying to recruit him to the Lib Dems. “His politics were already fully formed by that point,” McArthur says.) 

“Burray is linked to the Orkney mainland by the Churchill Barriers [causeway] so when the boys went to Kirkwall Grammar School they were bussed,” he says. “I was conscious that I was going to be going away during the week so I wanted to make sure that we were in a community rather than stuck up a mile-long road, which would have been isolating. It’s been an ideal community and it’s blossomed over the years. The school on Burray was threatened with closure but they built another one after Neil’s dad’s campaign. That one was going to be closed too, but it was also saved – there were just nine children at the school when Tom was at primary and now there are over 50. The nursery is full too.”

McArthur is, unsurprisingly, a huge advocate for island communities and regularly highlights the particular challenges they face when speaking in parliament. From pointing out problems with ferry and GP provision to reminding colleagues that all legislation needs to be “properly and robustly island-proofed” he is known for speaking up for the people he represents. Doing so is hugely important, he says.

“Orkney is a community that I was brought up in and it’s one that I’ve always found very, very supportive,” he says. “Here I’m just Bill and Sue’s son, I’m Fionn’s brother, I’m the football team’s goalkeeper. I know people from my time at school and doing theatre and all the rest of it. So many people have different connections with you and I love that about it. It’s a community that’s been so supportive of my family and allowed my kids to grow up in the same way I did.

“It’s difficult for those who don’t have experience of living and working in an island setting to understand what it’s like. I try to articulate what those differences are when we’re debating policies. We need to allow enough flexibility to accommodate those differences. Much of the legislation won’t work in an island setting or else it will have all sorts of unintended consequences. Part of liberalism is about giving people the tools they need to take control of their own lives, but also recognising that to get things done you need to have connections, whether to Scotland, the rest of the UK or Europe, because the challenges you face are more likely to be met and overcome if you’re working collectively.”

McArthur’s parents are still in Orkney, as is his brother Fionn, who runs digital content business Start Point Media out of Kirkwall. Samantha is a teacher in Glasgow and Dugald and Matthew are based in Edinburgh, the former working for the Scots Fiddle Festival and the latter in publishing. From the outside the McArthurs appear to have had the perfect family life, but they have had their fair share of hardship too, with their world being thrown into turmoil when Dugald broke his spine in a rugby accident back in 1996.

In an interview published in The Scotsman newspaper in 2009, Dugald, who was left quadriplegic by the accident, described how his family dropped everything to support him as he rebuilt his life. “Perhaps having such a large family helped keep me distracted, and entertained, made me feel loved and helped me avoid that moment of realisation, because you’re prevented from mulling over what the reality of the injury meant,” he said. For McArthur, his brother’s accident was in a sense life-altering too, leading him to start raising funds to provide financial and emotional support for other rugby players who have been similarly impacted by injury. The fundraising morphed into the creation of the charity Hearts & Balls in 1999, with McArthur serving as a director from launch. It was as a direct result of his brother’s accident, McArthur says, that he felt compelled to “support those affected by life-changing injury”.

It is, perhaps, this experience that has led McArthur to draft his assisted dying bill in the way he has, taking pains to ensure – despite the first minister’s stated fears – that disabled people will not be able to access its provisions through disability alone. The last time such legislation came before parliament then Tory leader Ruth Davidson said she could vote it down with a clear conscience because it had been so poorly drafted she didn’t really have to consider the implications of what it contained. Supporters say McArthur’s bill is tight, though, and makes clear what it would and would not allow. No matter how disabled a person is and how much that may lead them to want to die, in the absence of an advanced and clearly defined terminal illness that option would not be available to them in Scotland.

That is because the bill is not about dying per se, McArthur says, but rather about ensuring that assisted dying is one option among several that are on the table for those forced into making difficult choices about their end-of-life care.

“This isn’t instead of palliative care but for people who are having palliative care – we can’t play one off against the other,” he says. “The evidence from other countries shows that assisted dying can have a palliative effect as well. Lots of people get the most out of the days, weeks, months they still have to live. I went to California, which has introduced a similar law to the one we’re looking at, and about 30 per cent of those that applied for assisted dying didn’t use it because the palliative care did what it was expected to. It’s about having that choice.”

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