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A remorseless, relentless enemy

Rafael Behr talks to Maurice Saatchi.

Grief humbles. Baron (Maurice) Saatchi is a man of substance. He was the co-founder, along with his brother Charles, of the advertising colossus that bears his name. He has been a cochairman of the Conservative Party. He is wealthy and influential, yet he is entirely without swagger when I meet him at his vast office in Soho. Perhaps that is because the topic he wants to discuss begins with loss and powerlessness.

In June 2011, Saatchi’s wife, the novelist Josephine Hart, died from peritoneal cancer. From that bereavement was born a campaign.

“Cancer is relentless, remorseless and merciless,” Saatchi says, laying down his words carefully as if they were evidence in a trial. “The reason it is probably the most emotive word in the English language is that the effect of it is shattering to observe and fatal. That’s the first part. Everyone knows that. The second part is that the treatment for cancer is medieval, degrading and ineffective.” These words are unfurled with the same prosecutorial deliberation. “That’s probably not so well known.”

Saatchi was dismayed to find that the treatment for his late wife’s condition has been unchanged for 40 years, with the same outcome: survival rates of nil. So he applied his grieving legislator’s mind to the question of why cancer has not been beaten.

“Some people say it’s all to do with money and if only there were a billion pounds to be spent, all these terrible cancers would be cured,” he says. “I don’t find that very convincing on the grounds that billions have already been spent trying to research cures for cancer. The other explanation I’ve been given, which one has to pay serious attention to, is that cancer is so complex that it’s beyond the understanding of the human mind to comprehend the variables. This I also don’t find completely convincing, because I have awed respect for the scientists and doctors who have invented such wonderful breakthroughs.”

The explanation that matches Saatchi’s observations is that the whole business of medical innovation has been “cut in half”. There are the controlled clinical trials, designed to prevent patients from being treated as guinea pigs. Then there is what doctors do in hospitals. It is this latter part that concerns Saatchi. Specifically, he wants to change the law that, in effect, prohibits innovation by defining culpable negligence as deviation from the standard procedure. In other words, a doctor who tries something new – even with the full consent of the patient – has no defence if subsequently sued.

Saatchi is eager to praise the virtuous origins of this system.The law prohibits ad hoc innovation “to protect patients being treated like mice; to protect them from reckless experimentation, to protect them from snake-oil salesmen who are going to say: ‘Look, I’ll rub some dandelion juice on your tummy and you’ll be better.’”

But the safeguard has locked practitioners into repeating procedures that fail every time. Saatchi is introducing a bill into the House of Lords that would permit doctors, with the agreement of a full, multidisciplinary medical team (a very high threshold), to apply innovative techniques without fear of subsequent professional ruin. He is cautiously optimistic that the measure is viewed benignly by the Department of Health, although that is no guarantee that the government will find parliamentary time to turn the bill into law.

Yet Saatchi knows a thing or two about campaigns and this time, his adversary is not merely a rival political party.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?