Letter to my MP on the End of Life Choice Bill and a Referendum*

I do not recall during the 2017 election thinking about your position,  or that of the other candidates in my electorate, in regard to the legislation about assistance for those who choose to end their life. Now Parliament is going to make a decision about it. What do I want you to do for me?

My idealistic position on the role of MPs was articulated by Edmund Burke:

     ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’

Many of the issues which an MP faces are so complicated that I am happy to leave her or him to look at the complexities and make the decisions. That is the ideal of course. Many MPs are not capable of working with the judgment and competence that Burke expects, and often the independence he sought is overruled by party and promotion considerations. Still, that is my ideal.

However legislation like the End of Life Choice Bill raises further complications, evident by the parties giving their MPs a freedom of choice (ironic I suppose, given that choice is what the bill is about). This is because the issue involves deep ethical questions. But ethically, dear MP, you are no superior to me so the Burkean position does not quite apply. What to do?

It seems likely that the bill will be put to a referendum. That raises interesting constitutional issues, which the Mother of Parliaments is struggling with (to the point that she is showing signs of dementia?). Referenda are rare in Britain. Aside from general elections, which are a kind of referenda, there have been but three. New Zealand has used them a lot more.

For New Zealand has found referenda a useful means of dealing with issues when the parties have been greatly internally divided, such as liquor liberalisation and the introduction of offcourse betting. In 1949 the Labour government, faced with a reluctant caucus, had a referendum to introduce peacetime compulsory military training. In 1997, a coalition government, split on a retirement scheme, asked voters.

In addition to the referenda of the early 1990s which introduced MMP, there have been two referenda concerned with electoral issues. In 1967 voters rejected a longer parliamentary term. In 2011 there was a rerun of the 1990s MMP referenda which also retained the status quo, which was now MMP.

Since 1993 there has been the possibility of citizens' initiated referenda whereby ten per cent of enrolled voters can institute a national referendum. In the legislation's first decade there were five such non-binding referenda, all of which were on highly emotive, populist topics. In each case there was a decisive outcome; in each case the outcome went against the government; in each case Parliament appeared to ignore the voters and proceeded as if the referendum had not happened.

Britain’s more niggardly record – they have had two on joining or leaving the EU and one on electoral reform – even has some arguing that they are ‘unconstitutional’, compromising the sovereignty of parliament. Of course, if parliament is sovereign it can pass legislation to hold a referendum and it can bind itself to uphold the outcome (and reverse it, if it dares). I think that what the critics are saying is that the EU issue is too complicated to leave to the public. It requires Burkean judgment rather than relying on uninformed public opinion.

Certainly with hindsight, the referendum on whether Britain should stay or leave the EU was ill-conceived. When designing it, Prime Minister David Cameron seems to have given little consideration to the Remainers losing. It was easy to vote ‘leave’ but the terms of leaving are deeply ambiguous. To simplify, ‘leave’ can mean six alternative possibilities ranging from a minimalist to maximalist (i.e. no-deal) separation. Some Leavers voted for some but not all of the six, others voted for only one or for a different combination. Even had voters been as well-informed as a Burkean might have hoped, there would have been no unanimity among Leavers – as has become evident as they have become better informed.

That is the difference with the proposed referendum on the End of Life Choice Bill. What I take is going to happen is that our Parliament will pass a bill with the proviso that if a majority of voters in a designated referendum agree, the bill will become statute law. (The referendum is likely to occur at the same time as the 2020 general election.)

We can now see what I expect of my local MP. First of all, I want a referendum on the proposal. I do not see it as a compromise to assuage New Zealand First. Rather, it is a sensible way for Parliament to make a decision on a controversial matter on which it is not well placed to represent the people.

Where Parliament has expertise is to ensure that the proposal embedded in the bill is in good working order. I will be very disappointed if some MPs aim to disrupt the bill to make it ineffective. It may be that the bill requires further attention with constructive amendments; it may be that some further limitations are necessary. (I would like to see enacted the principle that anyone who encourages another person to take their own life commits a criminal offence.) But the aim should be to get a viable bill before the electorate and campaign against it if one opposes all euthanasia. (Indeed I am not fussed if my MP works diligently on the bill but does not express a view on whether it should be adopted.)

The same applies for Brexit. They need a second referendum (actually a third given there was a non-binding one in 1975) which offers voters an unambiguous choice between remaining and a particular leave option. There could be a tiered leave-choice, as we had in finding the alternative to the existing Front Runner (FPP) system – we chose MMP. (In fact, Britain may end up with a general election instead, which will not resolve anything, given their Front Runner voting system, and that the Brexit divide is across the parties.)

Certainly the campaigns around such referenda can be ill-informed to the point of becoming near hysterical. But as much as a democrat deplores them, better that than Parliament making a decision independent of the people.

* For the record, my electorate has three MPs; two were elected on the list. I probably also voted for a fourth one via my list vote.

The previous times I wrote about Brexit include here and here.