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Speaking up: An interview with Liam McArthur

Speaking up: An interview with Liam McArthur

For someone who confesses to having been a reluctant politician, Liam McArthur has thrown himself into political life with gusto.

Stepping into the very large shoes left empty when Liberal Democrat grandee Jim Wallace – a former party leader and deputy first minister – vacated the Orkney seat in 2007, he has found his own feet as a local representative while at the same time making himself so much a part of the Holyrood machinery that earlier this year he was elected one of the parliament’s two deputy presiding officers.

His presence in the chamber is a calming one, but McArthur also recently introduced a bill that has the potential to be one of the most divisive of the current parliamentary term. Why, at a time when Scotland appears so split on everything from independence to gender recognition, did he feel now was a good time to lodge the Proposed Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill – something that has been rejected by Holyrood twice before?

Quite simply, he says, because competent adults who are suffering from terminal illnesses – with suffering being the operative word – should be free to choose whether to end their own lives or not and the people who help them should be free to continue with theirs.

“An absolute ban is not sustainable,” McArthur says with reference to the current position in Scotland, where the law is sufficiently opaque that anyone who helps someone else take their own life could be prosecuted for murder, culpable homicide or reckless endangerment.

“It doesn’t provide any safeguards for individuals who take matters into their own hands. If you can afford to go to Switzerland then you will pay and probably go earlier than you need to because you have to be sure you’re still able to travel, but for the majority of people who find themselves in that position that’s not an option.

"They have to have a painful and undignified death despite the quality of palliative care, which is world-leading in this country. Others take matters into their own hands and end their own lives. The trauma for them and those they leave behind is intolerable[…] We’re at the point now where we need to address the fundamental issue of whether or not someone should be given the choice. ”

As proposed, the change in the law would apply only to mentally competent individuals who have a terminal illness they can no longer bear to live with. There is definite opposition to the proposal from religious groups in particular, but McArthur says there is also strong evidence to suggest that public opinion is supportive of the concept of assisted dying.

Indeed, campaign group Dignity in Dying Scotland says 87 per cent of Scots want it to be on the table as an option for terminally ill adults while a Panelbase poll of 1,001 adults carried out for The Sunday Times in June put the figure at a lower, but still significant, 72 per cent.

A number of medical organisations have also relaxed their position in recent years, with the Royal College of Nursing moving to a neutral stance on assisted suicide more than a decade ago and the Royal College of Physicians similarly moving from opposition to neutrality in 2019. This year the British Medical Association followed suit after a survey of members found nearly two-thirds favour greater choice for people at the end of their lives. 

Ultimately, though, the fact there are so many new faces in parliament since the May election led McArthur to believe now would be as good a time as any for the issue – which was first proposed by the late SNP politician Margo MacDonald and later taken up by Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie – to be aired again.

“We’ve had two elections since this was last brought forward,” he says. “There’s been a major change in the make-up of the parliament and there’s more of an alignment of colleagues with that strong public support. That reflects more and more people having lived experience of a family member going through a needlessly bad death.”

In October former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson – one of the old brooms who rejected the last attempt to change the law – used her maiden speech in the House of Lords to attack her own past “cowardice” on the issue. Poor drafting, she said, had enabled her to strike out the last bid “without ever fully taking on the difficult emotional or conflicting subject matter”. Doing more living since – going through IVF in order to become a mother and watching relatives suffer with dementia – had shown her the error of her ways, she said.

McArthur is awaiting the outcome of a consultation on his version of the bill to see if the public view more generally has, in fact, similarly shifted, but says he is confident a change is coming. When it does, he adds, it will be “the next liberal reform”.

That consultation will close in December and when we meet in parliament at the end of October, McArthur – the Lib Dem spokesman on the climate emergency – is otherwise engaged preparing to ask the Scottish Government to withdraw its support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport while UN climate conference COP26 is about to begin down the road in Glasgow.

The Heathrow motion fails after the SNP chooses to abstain on the vote, but COP goes ahead relatively unscathed by threats of strike action from a number of trade unions. In the end the RMT calls off a ScotRail strike that would have caused chaos on the key Edinburgh to Glasgow route and members of Unison and Unite continue to empty Glasgow bins while their counterparts at the GMB stage a walk-out.

But for McArthur – a former member of the parliament’s justice committee who, as one of just four Lib Dems at Holyrood, is also the party’s spokesman on justice – it is the threat of action from Scottish solicitors that is the cause for greatest concern, with legal aid lawyers planning to boycott the extra courts put on for the duration of COP as part of a long-running dispute over pay and working conditions.

Incensed by a review carried out by then Carnegie UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans in 2018, legal aid lawyers’ anger has been brewing ever since and, they say, the government has done little to reassure them of their value. Pay increases announced by community safety minister Ash Regan and former justice secretary Humza Yousaf have been dismissed as derisory and, with practitioners convinced that their concerns are going unheard, feelings in the run up to COP are running especially high.

“There’s no doubt that for a range of different groups who have been in dispute or seeking to improve their terms and conditions there seems to be an opportunity with COP to apply additional pressure and I entirely understand that,” McArthur says. 

“In relation to legal aid, this has been an issue that has been rumbling on for years and years and years. There have been various efforts to try to address the concerns of those in the profession but never in a way that fundamentally gets to grips with the problem of the diminishing number of those willing to take on this work and therefore an increasing issue around access to justice for those that need it.

“Orkney is not a legal aid desert yet, but there’s been a bit of a tendency for Scottish ministers to wait for the crisis point, to wait for things to collapse around their ears, and then wade in to the rescue. It’s a tendency of this government in particular to announce in retreat. It will say we want to be more progressive, more inclusive, this, that and the next thing, but they raise expectations then don’t spend enough time, energy or resources doing that – they move onto the next thing. They do just enough to tide things over but they don’t resolve the fundamental issue.”

Just before McArthur and I meet, Regan writes a letter to the presidents of the Law Society of Scotland and Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (SSBA) indicating that the measures already put in place by government are considered sufficient. SSBA president Julia McPartlin responds by renouncing her SNP membership then, when Regan doubles down on her position with a statement in parliament at the beginning of November, Jamie Greene of the Conservatives says it is likely to “go down like a bag of sick with Scotland’s criminal defence fraternity”.

For McArthur, who takes pride in his Orkney roots and laments how alien the archipelago remains to those at the heart of power, the government is unlikely to take the legal aid issue seriously unless and until it starts making a noticeable impact in the Central Belt. “It’s more likely to be resolved when you’ve got legal aid deserts appearing in parts of central Scotland,” he says.

How governments go about their business is of particular interest to McArthur, who, after studying politics at the University of Edinburgh, began his working life as a researcher for Wallace – at that time the MP for Orkney and Shetland. A self-confessed politics geek, it is the mechanics rather than the machinations of politics that interest McArthur most and, after a 10-year spell on the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, he put his name forward to become a deputy presiding officer following the election in May. After Alison Johnstone, erstwhile of the Greens, won the vote to become presiding officer, McArthur got sufficient backing to become the second of the two deputies appointed.

“When the discussions around the presiding officer were happening I had no desire to do that, but I was keen to put my name forward as deputy presiding officer,” he says. “There were about 10 candidates and it got whittled down – [SNP member] Annabelle Ewing was elected first then I got elected in the second round. 

“I’d sat on the corporate body of the parliament for the last two sessions and that got me involved in the running and workings of parliament in a way I found genuinely interesting. I take very seriously my role as a parliamentarian. It’s important, the way in which this parliament functions and behaves. Being a deputy presiding officer allows the opportunity to reflect that and reflect what we think the parliament should be like.

“There are those who aspire to ministerial office and those who aspire to convening committees. The first is unlikely given the political make-up [of the parliament, where the Liberal Democrats have gone from 17 seats between 1999 and 2016 to four now], and the second too, but this was something that interested me a bit more.”

McArthur takes very seriously his role as the representative for Orkney, too, having initially lived there from the age of nine until he left to go to university. He had made a “solemn promise” to his wife in the early years of their relationship that he would never stand for election, but when the opportunity came up to represent a constituency that had shaped his early life – and that his parents and one of his three siblings still live in – he took his time before eventually deciding to jump at the chance.

“When Jim announced that he was not only stepping down as leader but also wasn’t standing at the subsequent election I had a period over that summer to do some soul searching,” McArthur recalls. “I came to the conclusion that it’s the sort of opportunity that I’d be kicking myself down the road if I hadn’t taken it up […] but I couldn’t see myself representing anywhere other than Orkney. Had I not been selected by the local party I wasn’t going to hawk my CV around other constituencies.

“From a political perspective it’s the only constituency I felt I could represent effectively. It was where I was brought up, it’s the place I have the closest association and feel for. I understand the issues that are small P political and big P political in a community like that.

"There are different islands and each has its own dynamic and character […] but when you’re living in an island community there’s always a feeling that you need to shout louder to get your voice heard and needs addressed […] Being approachable and accessible are fundamental for any representative but particularly in a community like Orkney. Immersing yourself in that is an essential part of the job, but one of the aspects of the job I enjoy most.”  

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