Professor Sheila McLean
How would you describe your beliefs and identity in relation to religion?
In terms of religion, I would say that I am a committed Atheist. In terms of ideology, I suppose my major ethics would be around the question of human rights, but not from a strictly individualistic approach necessarily.
I suppose technically we were brought up CofS. That is the Church my mother goes to. My father was probably agnostic, rather than atheist. There has never been a strong sense of the significance of religion in our family, although my brother and I were taken to church, but honestly from a very early age I felt that the whole thing was both pompous and almost ridiculous. The whole notion that there was this supreme being up there didn’t seem to me necessary at all. I have become Marxist in this sense. I think religion is the opium of the masses and I agree with him that people should take responsibility for their behaviour when they are here. So, it never seemed to me necessary to believe in a God. The important thing is how you live when you are here and how you reconcile it with your own conscience. So, to answer the second part of the question, particularly with my father and my brother, we discussed politics a lot and so I learnt from the example… probably I have a very left wing approach to the world, combined with the notion that we must try to develop a political structure that respects people’s rights and freedoms wherever that is possible.
Do you think that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
Is Great Britain an equal and tolerant society in terms of religion and belief? It is probably one of the best examples of democracy in action, but I wouldn’t by any means say it is equal. With the best will in the world people don’t enjoy the same freedoms throughout the country, even though they are recognised on paper. I also think the UK’s recent governmental approach to the ECHR is extremely dangerous and I would refute it. To me the whole point of having a supranational declaration is the empowerment of citizens to challenge any perceived egregious behaviour by states, so that the nation State should not be the body adjudicating on these particular issues when disputes arise. Even if they took the European Convention word for word and they transformed it into a British Bill of Rights, for me that doesn’t satisfy the purpose of this international document.
Given the kind of subjects to which I have devoted my working life and on which I have written, such as abortion, euthanasia, etc, there is undoubtedly a resistance to what I might say, even though I don’t regard them as religious issues. The Catholic Church is still strong in Scotland and therefore, there is always resistance to a more liberal approach to this kind of question. And in my view, there is a lack of political will to stand up and be counted. Opinion evidence can be anecdotal, we know that, but a reasonably consistent pattern of sociological research suggests that the majority of the population would like to see assisted dying legalised, but there are not enough brave politicians to stand up and say that this is the will of the people and they must do something about it. I know that sounds terrible cynical, but it is what I think. Having said that, this is not a country in which people are obsessed with religion. It would be a much more difficult life for me if I were in the USA. The Church of Scotland membership is falling off year after year, and younger people tend not to go to church, and even the Catholic Church, which was the most powerful of the Churches, doesn’t seem to generate the same level of commitment that it used to. I don’t think religion plays an important part in Scottish life anymore.
Would you say that atheists have contributed to our collective understanding of human rights?
Oddly enough, our contribution (as Atheists) to the human rights debate in Scotland hasn’t been massive. Maybe what we do is replace some sort of faith with another. We don’t believe in a God but we believe in fundamental ethical principles. From my point of view, and I know this is not a distinction with which all philosophers would agree, but to me there is a very important distinction between Morals and Ethics, and to me Morals would be the kind of things that you learn, internalise and are very personal to you, and very often people get them from their faith, while I think that ethics are the intellectual framework within which we operate. So the example I normally use is my moral principle may dictate that I am opposed to assisted dying, and that may be because of my faith (most faiths indeed are opposed to it), but if my principle ethics is respect for people’s choice, I may well say that my morality is my morality, but my ethics would imply that I don’t impose my morality on other people. So, I think there is a significant difference between those who have a faith and those who think more ethically rather than morally, with the constant attempt to remember that you don’t have to impose your morals on other people, just because you believe in something. And the way the world works at the moment seems to me that people who have a moral approach to big issues are in a position legally to compel the behaviour of other people. I hope this distinction has been helpful.
I think that probably Dignity in Dying has had an important influence because they have been very supportive of various attempts at changing the legislation in England and Wales particularly, but beyond them, and even there, I am not sure… there is a surprisingly liberal tradition in the House of Lords. If you take the bishops away, there have been interesting attempts to deal with these issues and indeed in the HofC some of the committees have been very radical in what they had to say. Again I only really know about this stuff in my area of expertise, but one of the things which I would like to highlight, you may recall that very recently it was agreed to issue regulations to allow mitrochondrial DNA transfer. If you look at the vote, I would have expected the vote to be incredibly closer and in fact, particularly in the HofL there was a significant majority that voted in favour of the change. So, away from the high flying politicians whose agenda is determined by whatever, there are some free thinkers in the political structure.
Certainly human rights would be respected by public authorities rhetorically, but the problem I have with the way HRs are interpreted is partially that political correctness has replaced HRs in some arenas. For some reason people tend to think that PC is a tool of the left, but in fact it is a tool of the right imported from the USA and it was, in my view, a conscious attempt to restrict freedom of speech for example. It has done that not just in terms of stopping people from saying what they think about particular groups or protected ethnicities (and I don’t say this in a hostile way), but it has also resulted in serious inflictions of harm (as in Rothertham) on vulnerable people. So, yes, you could say that the UK is a clear example of a country which respects human rights, but I think in practise we have become more politically correct than I think it is helpful for the cause of human rights.
Does the State get the balance right when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens, especially in relation to religion and belief?
In terms of freedom of religion and belief, my impression is that people are free to worship as they wish and I wouldn’t see any particular problem, but the secondary part of it is whether public authorities interfere in how you practically demonstrate how you think you should live your life because of your religious faith.
The State has a responsibility to protect us from harm. That means that on occasions some freedoms have to be restricted in order to protect other liberties. So, I think there are cases in which restrictions are necessary.
Does living in a democracy make it easier to live in accordance with your beliefs, is there any system of government which you would prefer?
I would prefer as an alternative a real democracy, which I don’t think most ‘democratic’ countries actually have. Ensuring that the people’s actual wishes are respected is an extremely difficult chore, and I am not sure how it could be achieved. As an example, in the recent election, Nigel Farage’s party had 3 million votes and 1 seat and the SNP had 4 million votes and 56 seats. So, it is pretty clear that it is not really working and I don’t think the FPTP system works. I am not an expert in electoral systems, but the current one does not work. We need to move towards something else if we really want to have a Government which represents the wishes of the people.
Do you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
Absolutely, I feel I have a personal responsibility to vote, partially because of what women went through in order to be entitled to vote and partially because by giving the franchise to the largest number of competent people in the country you can, at least, try to reflect the will of the people. I am almost tempted to say that we should move to an Australian model and fine people if they don’t vote. On balance, I think I might. I don’t like the idea of compulsion, but I am finding myself very wound up by those people who don’t want to vote. It is very simple. You can’t complain about the system if you can’t be bothered to participate.
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Would you like to see a judiciary empowered to strike down legislation?
I wouldn’t really like to see stronger powers of the judges than they already have. That is one of the protections that the HRA provides. Ministers have to swear that whatever they are doing legislatively is compatible with the broadly accepted ethical principles contained in the HRA. The judiciary are very human. So, if you look at some of the judgments which have been made in the past, particularly in the USA, you could see that sometimes they are very politically motivated. When you see how the judges are appointed to the Supreme Court in the USA you can see how the judiciary can become a tool of one party or another. It is like the Government in the UK packing the House of Lords with their own cronies. I don’t have enough confidence in the judiciary to make it more powerful.
Is a majoritarian democracy a problem for minorities? Are there barriers to participation for some groups in our society?
I am not a majoritarian. I don’t think that just because the majority of the population think that something is a good idea, that you must necessarily do it. If you ask British people whether they would like to have death penalty back, that is the classical example, in which you cannot simply be led by the wishes of the majority. In fact, the majority can be very ill-informed or be very prejudiced. To be a democrat you have to believe that the person who gets the majority wins, but that doesn’t mean that people who get the majority should be allowed to do absolutely what they want. So, there must be a system of checks and balances that probably exists informally in the UK, but I am not sure it exists as clearly as it should.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?
I wouldn’t want a wholly or partially elected Upper House, I know you are going to find this surprising, or at least I wouldn’t if they were appointed on merits. I think this is the real problem of the Upper House at the moment. You will have read the debates of both Houses on a particular topic and I don’t know how you feel, but I must admit that I feel that often the debates in the HofL are more intellectually challenging and more reflective, because they are not supposed to follow a particular party line. So, I would get rid of the bishops and of the former MPs who are there for no particular reason, but in the HofL there are a number of people who are there on intellectual merits and they have actually contributed and they have something to say. Robert Winston, whom you have interviewed, is a classic example of that. I don’t always agree with Robert, but he knows what he is talking about. Contributions like his make the debates much more interesting.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
I don’t think bishops can speak on behalf of all Christians and undoubtedly not on behalf of people of different faiths and there are increasing numbers in the UK. From their point of view, they have a direct link with God, but to me it does not make any sense to claim that they can speak for all others. With the best will in the world, they probably believe that, but there is no logic to that suggestion at all and I would simply get rid of them in the House of Lords.
Do you think that public bodies respect the will of Parliament expressed in legislation?
I think there is a genuine effort to uphold legislation, but that is clearer at local than central Government level. I know there have been many scandals and all the rest of it, but my experience of local councils is that they seem to be more concerned to respond to what local communities want. I suspect this is what the Government means when it talks about devolving powers to regions instead of having everything centralised. The real problem is its impact on equality. Furthermore, there are issues about the quality of people who put themselves forward to work for public authorities. There is so much disaffection about politics that some of the best people don’t really go for it.
How do you feel about devolution in Wales and Scotland?
In terms of devolution, I think it has been very positive for both Wales and Scotland, although I wouldn’t want to claim that we are very different from England… some people would say here that we have completely different values. I don’t think that is true at all, but there are characteristics, whether geographical or not, that do make a difference to people’s attitudes and rights. For instance in the Highlands there are logistical difficulties in providing healthcare over such a large area with relatively few people, some in difficult to reach places. Resolving these difficulties is probably better done from Edinburgh rather than London. I suppose if I were Welsh I would say that we don’t have enough devolution and we keep depending on the Westminster model, but I think there is a value in a positive recognition, not of some kind of trivial artificial creation of differences, but in the recognition of some real differences, which can be economic, geographical, etc, and if you are going to govern properly, they must be taken into account and it is unclear to me, to be honest, how the central Government in London could do that even if it were very keen on doing it.
How should those who exercise power be held accountable?
I am not an expert about the whole representation issue, but I come back to the notion that full representation (including true accountability) will only happen when the people who put themselves forward for public office are the best we can find, and I don’t mean this saying they need a PhD or something like that, but they must be people who are committed to their community, a small or a big one, and have a particular understanding of the area in which they live.
Do you think that atheists are proportionately represented in public life?
I wouldn’t care about the religious or non religious persuasion of my MP. To me that is irrelevant. Although some people suggest that we just vote for the party, it is clear to me that we also vote for the individual, and Charles Kennedy and Tony Benn were clear examples of this. It happens quite a lot. By a large, however, most people would vote for the party they traditionally voted, or in the case of the recent general election in Scotland they voted in the opposite way because they felt that the party for which they had traditionally voted, had effectively ignored them. I would be very interested in learning how many people who voted SNP really believe in independence, because I think a significant number of them don’t, but the Labour Party had basically taken them for granted for a very long time and had left people in poverty and without representation.
Are the judiciary sufficiently independent?
I am not sure that judges are too closely linked with politicians, but as a class they are not really representative of people. The cost of University education seems likely to deter some people from engaging in higher education, the danger being that people from less wealthy families will never be able to become a judge. This perpetuates (at least in theory) the kinds of experience and thinking that may have little to do with the ordinary citizen. I don’t think they are close to the politicians, but they have their own agenda, which is not necessarily mainstream.
Does the current system of checks and balances between Parliament and the Executive function effectively? Are there changes you would like to see?
I don’t think I can answer the question about the relationship between Parliament and the executive. However I can say that when the Scottish Parliament was set up I was impressed by its committee system which was open to everybody. So, I gave evidence to the Justice Committee one day and the people who had given evidence before were a group of travellers who felt they had been badly treated and so on. The openness of the committee system is a real bonus in Scotland. It is not as structured as in Westminster, but it is open to everyone and it is definitely one of the best aspects of the Scottish devolved model.
Are the needs of atheists understood and met by public authorities?
I suspect that there is not a community of atheists in the UK. Atheists don’t really feel they have to belong to a community. When my mother goes to church, one of the things she gets out of it is the sense of community. As an elderly lady on her own and an increasingly reduced group of friends, that is crucial. I am not clear that those who don’t adhere to a particular faith have the same need or opportunity to affiliate in that way. However, they do it in other ways, of course. They become members of a political party or share a commitment to an ideology, which is not political, but with like-minded people. At the end of the day we are all social animals.
I don’t think individual atheists have needs that people of faith have. For example, I think it is important that in hospitals there are representatives of different faiths and for those who have faith, I would hope, it is very comforting and I have no qualms about it. It is in other contexts when I think the influence can be harmful. I don’t approve of faith schools, but on the other hand I can understand why for some people it is very important to educate their children in that context. I don’t approve of it, but I think I can understand the motivation for it. In Scotland we still have schools for Catholics and Protestants and interestingly there are many non Catholics who want to get their kids into Catholic schools, because they tend to be very good schools. I don’t like when faith schools become a source of segregation.
Is it important for you to always act within State law?
I could imagine situations where it would be ethically imperative for me to act in a way against legislation. In the area of assisted dying it may well be the compassionate thing for me to do. I don’t know if I would have the courage to do it, but I can see why I may think that would be the appropriate thing to do. I have also taken part in public protests and I have technically breached the law, standing in the middle of the street and blocking the traffic. I can see situations, but they would be very limited. Not all law is good law and I don’t think you should just follow the law because it is there. I do think that unjust laws exist. A number of years ago I was asked to debate with Dalai Lama, which was terrifying, and the first question was whether democracy was the best form of government and unsurprisingly he said ‘absolutely’ and maybe I was disrespectful, maybe influenced by the fact that Mr Blair had just recently taken us into a war, and then I said a benign dictatorship could be better. I wasn’t totally serious about it! I think there are situations in which people have to protest and the war in Iraq was an excellent example of it.
Do you feel a duty to speak out for the vulnerable?
Yes, I feel I have to speak on behalf of the weak and the vulnerable. If you are lucky enough to have a public platform, as I did, you have an obligation to speak for people who cannot defend themselves.
Do you believe that the Rule of Law is applied equally in Great Britain, or do some groups experience preferential or prejudicial treatment?
I think there is a genuine ideological commitment to equality in the UK, but there are some reasons why in the long run it is not as simple as that. The trouble is acting in a way which is consistent throughout Great Britain is complicated. I don’t think we are worse than others, probably we are better, but I am not sure that equality is really feasible, to be honest.
How do you feel about the general trend towards an increase in police powers in recent years?
Some of the powers which are being granted to the police seem to me a serious potential threat to our civil liberties, and their freedom to pick on people on the grounds of their colour is certainly a threat… In a sense, if you can establish that someone is a threat, then the powers of the police are proportionate. However, random choice of people based on factors such as race or colour is not acceptable.
Are there any legal changes which you would like to see introduced?
Yes, I would modify the legislation on assisted dying because it is a fundamental infringement of my freedom to make a decision which is crucial to me.
Is there anything which you would like to add on this topic?
I suppose the only thing that springs to my mind immediately is this idea of a fixed term Parliament… the previous situation may not have been perfect, but at least it was feasible to get rid of an unpopular Prime Minister or corrupt Government. Nowadays it is much more difficult. I cannot think of how this 5 year term could be guaranteed in any other job. You would not remain in your position if you weren’t performing that job and I can’t really see why this bill went through Parliament with so little comment.
Professor Sheila McLean was the first holder of the International Bar Association Chair of Law and Ethics in Medicine at Glasgow University. She has been a Vice-Chairman of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee and remains a member of that Committee, and has acted as a consultant/adviser to the World Health Organisation, the Council of Europe, UNESCO and a number of individual states. She has acted as legal adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology and the joint House of Lords/House of Commons Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryos Draft Bill. She has held a number of posts external to the University, including founding Chairperson of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, and has chaired a number of Governmental Committees, such as the review of the consent provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, the Independent Review of the Removal and Retention of Organs at Post Mortem (Scotland), the Working Group on No Fault Liability for Medical Injury (Scotland) and the Expert Panel on Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (Scotland).
She has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, The Royal College of General Practitioners, The Royal College of Physicians (Edinburgh), the Institute of Biology, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society of Arts, and has been awarded Honorary Degrees by the University of Edinburgh and the University of Abertay, Dundee. She has acted as an expert reviewer for many of the major grant awarding bodies and similar organisations both within and outside of the United Kingdom. She has published extensively in the area of medical law, is on the Editorial Board of a number of national and international Journals and is regularly consulted by the media on matters of medical law and ethics. In 2005 she was awarded the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Legal Awards. Her book, Assisted Dying: Reflections on the Need for Law Reform was awarded the Minty Prize of the Royal Society of Authors and the Royal Society of Medicine in 2008. She has published 10 monographs and edited 14 others. She took an early retirement in 2014, but continues to publish and engage in research.