26 October 2012

What are Margo's chances?

I meant to discuss this at the time, but better late than never, I suppose. During September, the news quietly circulated that Margo Macdonald has again secured sufficient signatures from her fellow parliamentarians, to allow the issue of assisted dying to be revisited in Holyrood this session.

Her last attempt to reform the law was eviscerated by an ad hoc committee chaired by Ross Finnie, and the discussion of the Bill was halted at stage one, rejected on its general principles by the Scottish Parliament on an unwhipped vote of fifteen to eighty-five. Whether by conscious strategy, or down to the dismal dreich December weather, the vote was marked by a very large number of absences. Of voting members (i.e. excluding the Presiding Officer), some 20% of the parliament didn't express a view on the Bill's general principles, one way or the other.

No new draft bill has yet been lodged but her nineteen supporters are identified here. In 2009, Margo was able to secure twenty signatures, of whom thirteen MSPs remain in the parliament  - Patrick Harvie (Green), Elaine Murray (Lab), James Kelly (Lab), John Park (Lab), Sandra White (SNP), Christine Grahame (SNP), Jamie Hepburn (SNP), Bill Kidd (SNP), Angela Constance (SNP), Joe Fitzpatrick (SNP), Jackson Carlaw (Tory), Jim Hume (Lib) and Liam McArthur (Lib).  Today, she draws the majority of her support from SNP MSPs, including George Adam, Marco Biagi, Chic Brodie, Roderick Campbell, Jim Eadie, Christine Grahame, Jamie Hepburn, Bill Kidd, Richard Lyle, Mark McDonald, Fiona McLeod and Sandra White. Support elsewhere, from both Green MSPs, from Argyll Tory man Jamie McGrigor and Orkney Liberal Liam McArthur, and from three Labour MSPs: Kezia Dugdale, John Park and Mary Fee. Interestingly, eleven of Margo's nineteen supporters are members newly-elected in 2011.

Obviously, Margo's private member's Bill was rejected by a large margin in 2010. Are its chances of appearing in the law books better today? Prima facie, you might think not, but a look at the numbers suggests that the changes affected by the last Holyrood election present opportunities as well as challenges. Of the fifteen MSPs who - at the very least - wanted to continue discussing her proposals in 2010, six (40%) no longer sit in the parliament.  Margo has also lost one of her most vocal supporters in the Liberal Democrat Jeremy Purvis, defeated in the Borders by Christine Grahame in the 2011 election. But as you'll recall, 2011 was a poll with unexpected consequences, not least that many more familiar faces and old political hands were not returned, and a whole new cohort of Labour and Nationalist MSPs were elected, many of them rather younger than the traditional Labour and Nationalist tribalists who secure their party's nomination for office.  New faces, new opportunities.

What's more, Margo has indicated that this won't be an unaltered rerun of her abortive last attempt to amend the law of homicide.  The draft Bill she will introduce will apparently be an reframed, rejigged text, drawing on the criticisms which she proved unable to fend off in parliament's last session, although I imagine the "general principles" which she seeks to promote are more or less unaltered. It's also worth recalling that a number of those MSPs who supported her at stage one in 2010 made explicit in their speeches that they were in favour of continuing the parliamentary conversation, not necessarily endorsing the merits of her proposals. 

All that considered, opportunities and challenges both, from Margo's perspective the prospects for these new proposals looks bleak. The parliamentary arithmetic suggests the scale of the challenge before her.  By my reckoning, here's how the new chamber which will be reconsidering assisted-dying shapes up...

Margo's notoriously no faintheart, and I'm sure she will fight on with this policy, despite opposition.  But what are the chances that she'll prevail on this second try? Slim, I'd say. Very slim. 


  1. Supporters are at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_MembersBills/20121015_Final_list_of_supporters_Assisted_Suicide.pdf

  2. Anonymous,

    Much obliged. I was looking in the wrong section of the parliament's website. I've updated the post accordingly.

  3. I think it is too hot a subject to succeed at this moment in time. Maybe after 2014?

  4. I would think that if it were a question in a different referendum, after 2014, it would pass.

    The problem is the that politicians are too feart of lobbying groups and the muck that they would chuck around.

  5. Juteman, Lupus,

    Do you think this is one of those issues where politicians are feart to act on their private convictions, and there's a muted, cautious majority who actually favour some sort of legal assisted dying regime? I'm not so sure.

  6. Another fascinating piece LPW - many thanks for the info on Margo's backers.

    Am not a full backer of Margo on this issue and not a backer at all of her on independence - but how lucky we are to have her (and a few others) at Holyrood among the boors and the bores.

  7. Edwin,

    No bother. Always interesting, to try and fill out and impression of some of our tribunes, and their politics. Am particularly interested to see how the younger band of folk's convictions tend too. As I've noted in the past, I'm sympathetic towards Margo's position, but not insensible to the fact that the concept of an "intolerable life" isn't such an existential condition - we can make lifes intolerable, by failing to secure to our disabled and sick fellow citizens reasonable standards of living. The weight of that concern will only increase, I expect, as Margo makes her case for this Bill in the context of significant welfare reform across the UK, whose impacts on disabled people have already been sketched elsewhere. I doubt she'll succeed, but I'm sure she'll press on with her proposal with all her usual gusto and authenticity.