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We come now to the general debate on principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate. We have until 5 o’clock. I have spoken to the Minister, who has undertaken to try to deliver an economical speech, although of course he does have the Floor and it is important that we hear the Government’s position.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate.
This is a Government who believe in letting the British people exercise their democratic rights, and as Minister for the Cabinet Office my responsibilities include the smooth running and safeguarding of our elections, and ensuring that every elector has the opportunity to cast their vote.
Since we came to office in 2010, we have made significant progress to give more people a say. Through the implementation of individual electoral registration, we have grown the electoral roll to nearly 47 million people—the biggest that it has ever been. People across the country are now able to go online to ensure that they have the opportunity to cast their vote. We have worked to open up the franchise for homeless people and increased accessibility for those with disabilities. We have committed to introducing voter ID, to protect the ballot and to stop those who want to steal other people’s identities and votes. Voters deserve to have confidence that their elections are secure, and protected from electoral fraud.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I would recommend that he reads the Electoral Commission’s report on that subject. I frankly find it astounding that Opposition Members should think that we should not have identity for voting. People in major democracies such as Canada are aghast that people can turn up at our polling stations with no evidence of their identity.
To help the Minister on this point, I can tell him that the very first moment that I get a chance to sit at my desk I will be asking him to come to the House for an end-of-day Adjournment debate, in which I will give him evidence from my constituents of the kind of practice that is going on in my constituency, in their view, which I am quite sure will stand up to the requirement to make the changes that he would advocate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe for his intervention. I always welcome his help and support in relation to evidence, and look forward to that discussion.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle asked, “Will you take it to the police?” I am happy to tell the House today that in the 2015 election, my agent and I told our candidates—because there was a district council election at the same time as mine—that if there was any evidence of malfeasance we would be the first to take it to the police; so I found myself knocking on the door of the police station with the Liberal Democrat candidate and my agent, to report somebody who was subsequently arrested. Unfortunately he was not prosecuted, and he was one of mine. I will not have any abuse of the electoral system, and although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, I must tell him that we have got to sort this mess out.
Is the Minister aware that in Northern Ireland, as a result of the increase in proxy votes and postal votes, to which the Electoral Commission has turned a blind eye, and which is done on an industrial scale by Sinn Féin, who look at the marked register, find out who has not voted in the last election, visit them and get the forms filled in, at least two members of the SDLP probably lost their seats to electoral fraud in the last election? Will he take that matter up with the Electoral Commission, which seems to have no desire to address that issue?
We are working to reduce intimidation around the ballot box, and intimidation of those in public life. I am sure the whole House will agree that the latter is a deeply worrying trend that we must reverse. Indeed, earlier this year the Government legislated to prevent candidates in local elections from having to declare their addresses on the ballot paper. We have consulted on, and committed ourselves to, a new electoral offence to prevent people from intimidating candidates and campaigners.
However—and this, really, is the essence of the debate—more important than the preparations for an election are the consequences of that election. One seismic democratic event has dominated our proceedings since I was elected to the House in 2015, and that, of course, is our referendum on membership of the European Union. It was something that we had promised in the manifesto on which I was elected, and I well recall the deep scepticism of voters that we would ever deliver on it. Frankly, I do not blame the voters. Other parties had been promising referendums for years: Labour in 2005, the Liberal Democrats in 2008, and the Greens in 2010. In fact, one way or another, every major political party in Britain fought an election between 2005 and 2015 with a pledge to hold a referendum on our relationship with Europe.
Earlier, the Minister talked about how the Government had been extending the franchise. One of the consequences of the in-out EU referendum was an issue involving the franchise: the UK Government did not think that EU citizens were worthy of a vote. In Scotland, in the 2014 referendum, we did give EU citizens a vote, because we recognised the value of their contribution. What message does the Minister think is being sent out by not giving those EU citizens a vote?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the parliamentary franchise that was applied to the referendum was the same parliamentary franchise that applies in other elections, because there was not a case for changing it.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is being very generous.
It is great that we are celebrating the extension of the franchise and that more people are voting in all elections, but does my hon. Friend agree that one issue is very concerning? If our democracy is to work well, citizens must have impartial information. They need to be well informed in order to make informed choices. Websites such as that of 38 Degrees are not providing information about the work of MPs in an impartial way. Will my hon. Friend agree to work with the Hansard Society, which does such an excellent job, to demystify the work of MPs in this place so that our constituents understand it and can make informed decisions when they come to the ballot box?
I am grateful to the Minister. He is absolutely right: all the political parties have, at one time or another, made a commitment to a referendum. In their 2010 manifestos, the three major parties gave a commitment to hold a referendum on what became the Lisbon treaty, better known as the European constitution, although unfortunately the majority of MPs did not comply with those manifesto commitments. Does the Minister agree, however, that the parties that support a referendum, either in the House or in their manifestos, should accept the result when they lose?
The hon. Gentleman has made an excellent point. As I was about to say, I supported remain during the referendum campaign, but from the early hours of the morning, when we received the result, I was completely clear about the fact that my job, as a Member of Parliament, and the job of the Government was to deliver on it, and that is exactly what we should be doing.
May I return the Minister to the subject of EU citizens? When I am out campaigning in the streets of Edinburgh South West in a British general election, EU citizens often come up to me and ask why they are allowed to vote in a Scottish parliamentary election but not in a British general election. Given that EU citizens make a net contribution to the British economy, what possible justification is there for not allowing them to vote for the Government of the whole United Kingdom rather than just the Government of Scotland?
It is generally the case that there are not reciprocal voting rights, and our position aligns with that of virtually every other European state in that regard, so I do not think we are outriders in the way that the hon. and learned Lady suggests.
People were surprised that we actually delivered on that referendum. We were not the only ones to support holding it. In the Lobby, we won by 544 votes to 53 to give people a say, which is 10:1. Indeed, seven of the eight Liberal Democrat MPs voted for it. That was quite a strong showing, really, for a party that now says that the outcome of the referendum does not count. After we voted for the referendum, we went to the public and made our case. Did any of us make the argument then, as is now being advanced by some, that the referendum was merely advisory? No, we were absolutely clear that this was in or out, remain or leave. Every vote was equal, every vote would count, and whatever the outcome, we would respect it: no caveats, no small print.
As I said to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, I supported remain in the campaign but, do you know what, I accepted immediately that we had lost. The British people took a different view, and that was their right. From the moment that result was declared I accepted it, because one thing I believe passionately is that politicians do not get to choose which votes to respect. When we ask the public for an answer and they give us one, we should simply get on and deliver it, even if it was not the result that was desired. The House seemed overwhelmingly to accept this, and it invoked article 50 with very little dissent. Immediately afterwards, we had an election in which 80% of the people voted for parties whose manifestos explicitly supported the United Kingdom leaving the EU. This represented a second democratic event relating to our membership of the European Union and a second mandate from the British people to leave.
The Labour party manifesto, for which many millions of people voted, explicitly said that we would respect the outcome of the referendum but that we would absolutely work against a no-deal Brexit.
I say to the hon Gentleman that a deal was put forward by the last Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mrs May, and I voted for that deal three times. I do not remember the hon. Gentleman being in the Lobby with me.
Since that moment of unity on the outcome of the general election campaign, parliamentarians have got stuck. We have talked endlessly about this. There have been hours of debates, motions, votes and Committees, and extraordinary parliamentary manoeuvres on all sides. Three whole years have ticked by, and while we have been double-checking the finer points of “Erskine May”, the public have been wondering what on earth we have been doing in this place.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I remember the cries of outrage on Prorogation and the demands that Parliament should return because we had so much to discuss. Members opposite were desperate to discuss these things, yet here we are, mid-afternoon on a Thursday, two days in, and I think I can count the number of Labour Members present on the fingers of one hand.
None of us came into Parliament to avoid making decisions, to duck the issues or to indulge ourselves in parliamentary processes, but to the outside world this appears to be exactly what the House is doing.
We could spend forever rehashing the political and legal arguments relating to Prorogation. The Government have accepted the outcome of the Supreme Court, although we disagree with it, and that has put an end to the matter. I do not think it will serve the House to discuss it any further. That is why we are back in this place.
To the outside world, all the House appears to do is say no: no to a second referendum; no to the single market; no to a customs union; no, no and no again to a deal. Perhaps most bizarrely of all, Her Majesty’s Opposition urge no to a no confidence motion. It is clear that we have reached an impasse. This Parliament becomes more entrenched and less effective by the day.
The Minister will know that the closest the House came to saying yes was when we held indicative votes. They took place over approximately four sitting days and we managed to get closer to an agreement than the previous Prime Minister had done in about two years, ignoring the House when it said that it did not support her withdrawal agreement. Is one option for the Government to explore again across the House what can find consensus? If that consensus was on a deal, but a deal to be put back to the people in a referendum, would the Minister accept the House’s yes to that step forward?
For the simple reason that I honestly do not believe that a second referendum would solve anything. I have yet to hear people who voted leave proposing a second referendum.
I am answering the right hon. Lady’s point, if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me.
The only proponents of a second referendum are those who wish to reverse the result of the first. If we were then in a position whereby we had one vote for leave in a referendum and one vote for remain in another referendum, how would that in any way solve the situation? Surely a better solution is to agree a deal and for the House to pass that deal so that the country can move on, which it so desperately wishes to do.
Does the Minister accept that some of those who call for a second referendum have even made it clear that if it gave a result that they did not like, they would not accept it anyway?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
The Government have offered yet another electoral event to try to solve the matter. We have been clear that we wish to have a general election; so we could go back to the public a third time. However, I do not suspect that, in the end, the result would be any different—people want us to get on with this. The consequences of ignoring the principle of the electorate’s right to have their decisions implemented are only too real. People are losing faith. A recent poll found that 77% of people say that their trust in MPs across the political spectrum has fallen since the Brexit vote. Another found that opinions of our governing system are at their lowest for 15 years—lower even than during the expenses scandal. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that we do not want that to continue.
What are we, as MPs, here for? We are here to represent the people. We are not here for ourselves, but for the people who elected us—the people whom we serve—and to vote, decide and deliver. When we cannot do that, we must surely accept that the right and proper thing to do is submit ourselves again to the electorate. We go back to our constituents and ask the electorate for the chance to serve them again or let them choose someone else. That is how our Parliament is supposed to work when it faces gridlock—to refresh itself through a general election—and that is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has twice offered the opportunity to have that general election, but now we are faced with the most extraordinary “no” of all. The Leader of the Opposition has twice said no to calling that general election.
The Prime Minister put forward the chance of an election, and that election would have taken place before the European Council. It would have been possible at that European Council for the Prime Minister, whether it be the current Leader of the Opposition or the present Prime Minister, to propose a change and to get the deal they want. Why does my right hon. Friend think the Opposition are so afraid of having that opportunity to be in government and to attend that Council?
I think my right hon. Friend answers his own question. It is only too clear that there is only one reason why the Opposition do not wish to have an election: they do not believe they will win it. They wish to keep this Parliament in a state of suspended animation until they think they may have a chance to win a general election.
Indeed, even as the Opposition continue to frustrate a general election, leaflets from the Labour party are dropping through voters’ letterboxes demanding an election. It is an extraordinary state of affairs, and this from a Leader of the Opposition who has spent his life going weak at the knees for revolutionaries. He suddenly seems rather scared of change. Apparently there is a world to win and nothing to lose but chains, but maybe just not right now. Is it not the truth that the public have had enough of this dither and delay? They are saying “enough,” and we are saying “enough.” If the Opposition do not have the courage to say what they are for, they should at least have the courage to ask the electorate what they think of that.
Conservative Members have always recognised that the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate matter. I am proud to be in a Conservative party that, time and again, has embraced reform to give people their say and has represented them effectively. We are the party of Disraeli’s second Reform Act, which helped enfranchise the working classes; of the law that gave all women the same right to vote as men; of the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat; and, of course, of two great female Prime Ministers.
In this case, the principle also unlocks something far more practical: 17.4 million people gave us an instruction three years ago to leave the EU, and they want us to move on. I am conscious that Mr Deputy Speaker also wishes me to move on, so I will wind up my remarks very shortly.
We are obviously up against time. The spokespeople for the other parties need to come in, and 14 Back Benchers also want to speak. I am concerned that we will run out of time very quickly.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
We want to get on with our job as legislators and move on to the things that people want us to focus on: their hospitals, their schools and the safety of their streets. That is what this Government are determined to do.
I commend this motion to the House.
I regret that we are having yet another general debate, rather than making progress on all the outstanding legislation. After all, is it not an important principle of democracy and the expectation of our electorate who sent us here that we make progress on passing legislation?
The principles of democracy are important, and I welcome the topic of this debate. I also welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Chloe Smith back to the Front Bench following the birth of her daughter.
In the current political climate we, as elected Members of this House, must demonstrate our commitment to upholding the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate. I remind the House that we would all do well to conduct this debate in a civil manner and to remember that words matter. I am sure all Members would agree that yesterday was not a good day for this House. Let us acknowledge now that the language coming from two sides is throwing petrol on the toxic nature of debate in our country. It is as wrong to call someone a fascist simply for having voted leave as it is to call someone a traitor simply for having voted remain.
It is my hon. Friend’s use of the word “fascist” that got me. I have just had a message from one of our female colleagues, whose office has been attacked and has had to be closed down by the police because a demonstrator was shouting, “Fascist”. I have also read on Twitter:
“Addressing journalists in Westminster, a senior government source has warned that abuse of MPs will get worse if they pursue a second referendum: ‘What do they think is going to happen?’”
Does my hon. Friend agree that such language causes risk and danger to us all on a daily basis?
I am chilled and shocked by what my hon. Friend has just said, which reflects the language that I think we all know is being used out there in communities. We in this House must show leadership and do better. It is as inflammatory to call somebody thick for having voted leave as it is to call someone a surrenderer for having voted remain. None of this toxic language makes the world a better place; it just makes the problems worse. However this current crisis ends, we all have to live together, whether we voted leave or remain, or did not vote at all.
Words matter because they have consequences. I am genuinely concerned that the disgraceful, demeaning and defamatory language that is being used in this House will only whip up more division in our country and communities.
“ill words that go unchallenged are the first step on a continuum towards ill deeds—towards a much darker place where hatred and prejudice drive not only what people say but also what they do.”
It seems fitting that those words, which I completely agree with, were said by a Prime Minister whom I opposed, because it is so important that we do not lose the ability to disagree with each other without demeaning each other.
In the context of this week’s historic Supreme Court ruling, this debate is a timely reminder of why we must respect these crucial principles and rights. It cannot be right that the Prime Minister was found by the highest court in our land to have unlawfully shut down our Parliament, suspending democratic accountability and attempting to gag opposition to his reckless plan to crash out of the European Union without a deal. All 11 judges concluded that there was no reason for the Prime Minister to have shut down Parliament and ruled that his actions were unlawful. This attempt to undermine our democracy shows that the Prime Minister is unfit for office and he really should resign immediately. Anything less than resignation would damage the authority of the office of Prime Minister and further undermine public confidence in our political system.
What kind of lesson does this teach our young people? How can we, as elected representatives, expect our constituents to comply with the law when the most senior person in public office acts unlawfully and appears to show no remorse on such an important issue? As the shadow Minister for youth affairs, I speak with young people up and down the country. Many share a sense of anger over the criminalisation of their music and the narrative coming from certain parts of the media that drill music is behind the tragic surge in violence. How are we as politicians in any position to accuse drill artists of glorifying violence when politicians themselves are not held responsible for the violent language they use and the impact it has on the culture and climate of debate?
During this debate the Government have said that they want a general election. We can all agree on that. The Opposition would like an election at the earliest possible opportunity. However, we cannot trust this Government and this Prime Minister not to use this crisis of their own making to drive our country over a new-deal cliff edge in five weeks’ time. If the Government want an election, they should get an extension and then we will have an election.
The only way to respect the electorate when the election comes is to offer the public a vote on Brexit, putting control back into the hands of people in a confirmatory referendum, with a real choice between a credible leave option or remain, but I do not believe for one moment that resolving Brexit or “getting it done” will bring our country back together. Until we acknowledge that the result of the EU referendum in 2016 was not just about the EU, we cannot heal our country. In our heart of hearts, we must surely know that that vote was not solely about trading relationships, single markets or courts of justice.
We need to start talking about why people feel so left behind or have no sense of hope, and why people do not feel security in their jobs or in their homes. We need to start talking about poverty. We need to start talking about the way in which the Government systems treat people as numbers and not as people. We need to start talking about the personal independence payment and universal credit, and why people are being judged fit for work just days before they die. Unless we heal this country by addressing those huge inequalities—regional inequalities and class inequalities—it will not matter if it is a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, and it will not matter if Brexit does not happen at all, because the real divisions in our communities will still be there.
Let me be controversial: Brexit is not the biggest issue facing our country. We would be a lot closer to the real biggest issue if we looked at the reasons why Brexit happened. What this country needs is a Government who are serious about ending austerity and about providing hope and a decent future for people. Were we having this debate in normal political times, I would have criticised the Government for their track record—their oppressive and mandatory voter ID, unfair constituency boundary changes, and the individual electoral registration that has resulted in up to 9.4 million people not being registered correctly on the electoral roll. Those are just a few examples of key policy areas where over the past decade this Government have tried to manipulate our democracy and limit the rights of the electorate. However, I will focus instead on the practical solutions that this House could implement not only to uphold but to enhance our democracy. I believe that one way to achieve that would be to reform the franchise.
For years, Opposition parties and, to their credit, some Government Members have called on the Government to extend the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. This would open up our democracy to a generation of young people, giving them a say on the future of their country and demonstrating that we take their views seriously. Ahead of the most important general election for a generation, I urge the Government to consider their position on that.
Yesterday, at the Labour party conference, a motion was passed furthering our policy to grant voting rights to all UK residents, because people who live here and contribute in our communities deserve a say on the future of this country. Will the Government adopt Labour’s new policy and massively expand the rights of the electorate?
We need to increase voter registration radically. The study published today by the Electoral Commission shows that up to 9.4 million people are not registered correctly to vote—an increase of 1 million voters since the commission’s previous estimate. It is an unprecedented democratic crisis, which the Government have done nothing to address. In fact, the Prime Minister even tried to fix the election date to make it harder for students to take part. What kind of message does this send to our young people, who already think that politics is failing them? Instead, all political parties should be using their social media platforms and encouraging their activists on doorsteps to encourage voters to register to ahead of the general election.
We also need policy reform. The current system of individual electoral registration actively punishes mobile, marginalised and vulnerable voter groups and makes it harder for them to take part in our democratic process. To unlock millions of potential voters, the Government should examine the use of Government data to place people the electoral roll automatically. That would help to ensure that every eligible voter can have their say.
We also need to stop big money running our politics and corrupting our democracy, which is why Labour will ban donations to political parties from anyone who is not registered to pay tax in the UK. If people do not want to contribute to our public services, they should not be able to influence our democracy. This is what democratic principles look like. So whatever the motives behind today’s debate—and the topic is welcome—our country is at a turning point, and it is the duty of us all to respect the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate.
I was very pleased earlier today that Jess Phillips acknowledged that there is a common sense of good motive among Members of Parliament from all parts of the House. I confess that that has not always been reflected in the tone of many of the debates that I have attended, which has been a cause of some sorrow to me, because I believe that there is a huge amount of common ground in this debate on the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate. Indeed, we were elected to Parliament to uphold those very rights.
I think most of us have a common dream—a dream of a society that is ever more prosperous and free; virtuous or, if not, at least seeking to become more virtuous; and happy, with people pursuing their goals and flourishing to their fullest extent, not trapped in poverty. The shadow Minister talked about the inhumanity and bureaucracy under this Government. I ask her please to read the Centre for Social Justice reports at the time leading up to the 2010 election, because they show that the state is never an instrument of kindness and compassion under any Government. It is always rule-bound and it is always inhumane. One of the things we all must do, which is not the topic of this debate, is to work out how to enable all the wonderful public servants in all our public services to be freer to express the compassion that they personally feel for other human beings. Members will find on the record a speech I made some time ago on just this subject in relation to the personal independence payment.
Now, I believe that democracy is the foundation of this common dream, and that foundation of democracy is something that I feel very deeply about: the moral, legal and political equality of every person. Every single person, irrespective of their actual merits, should be treated by our systems as morally, legally and politically equal. Somebody mentioned boundary changes earlier. My constituency happens to represent about the right number of people, but some constituencies are way too large and some are way too small. That does not reflect political equality.
Democracy ought not to be idolised. Goodness knows that things have gone wrong in the midst of this political crisis. I have referred to the economic crisis many times; I believe that we are in a profound crisis of political economy that goes way beyond the topic of any one particular debate. The fundamental issue at stake, though, is that we need to be able to restrain the coercive power of the state peacefully, at the ballot box.
I want to quote Karl Popper, a very important philosopher who started off on the left. I believe he was a Marxist who fled from Marxism when one of his friends was killed in a riot and the people organising it had no sympathy, saying that you had to break some eggs to make an omelette. At that point, he started thinking about whether communism was in fact scientific. Popper said—I paraphrase his remarks slightly to reflect the spirit of the day—that “You can choose whatever name you like for the two types of government, and I personally call the type of government which can be removed peacefully at the ballot box ‘democracy’, and the other ‘tyranny’.” And that is the fundamental point. The public must be able to withdraw their consent from a system of government, and have it removed and replaced with a system that they prefer. We need a general election now, because this House has clearly withdrawn its consent from today’s Government. The Government should therefore fall, and we should have a general election. It is unconstitutional—[Interruption.] Mr Carmichael grumbles from a sedentary position. I cannot hear him, but I will take an intervention if he wishes to make one.
Surely the point is that what we get with a general election is a change of Government. The hon. Gentleman is talking about a system of government, which is a quite different thing.
I am talking about both. I am talking about the principle of democracy, which is the stability that comes from both the Government and the system enjoying democratic legitimacy expressed through the ballot box.
My second point is about the European Union. I am here today, although I care about many things, because of the way that the European Union constitution was handled. It was put to referendums in Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Latvia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Germany and Finland, all of which said yes. I had read the constitution and I knew that when the referendum came I should vote against it because it was too bureaucratic and therefore, I thought, likely to be inhumane. When it went to France and the Netherlands, they said no, and so referendums were cancelled in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and, yes, the United Kingdom.
But what did the European Union and those who govern it do? They did not change course and say, “It turns out we can’t get this system through the democratic consent of the peoples of Europe, so we must take another course.” As anyone who has read Open Europe’s side-by-side comparison of the Lisbon treaty, which replaced the European constitution, next to that constitution will know, they are functionally equivalent. What they did was an absolute democratic outrage. They changed the constitution of France to avoid a referendum and they made Ireland vote twice. That is why I am in politics.
The fundamental issue at stake today—
I get the impression that my hon. Friend is on his peroration, so I cannot resist adding a historical footnote on the Lisbon treaty. When a number of us argued that we ought to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty in the United Kingdom, one party said that we should not have a referendum on that—we should have an in/out referendum on our membership of the European Union. That party was the Liberal Democrats. Where are they on that position today?
Of course, as my right hon. Friend knows, they are now committed to always ignoring a leave result. That, too, is an outrage, but at least they are clear about it, and I feel confident that we could rely on them to abide by it.
The fundamental point is that the people must get the Government they vote for, and they must not get the Government they did not vote for but cannot get rid of. This is a fundamental point related to the dreams we all have of a better society. It is about the dignity of the individual and the right of every person to determine their future peacefully at the ballot box.
If the worst thing the Irish could say of the European Union is that it made them vote twice, I can imagine they have a lot worse things to say about their relationship and their union with England.
This week, we had a sterling reminder from the United Kingdom Supreme Court that in the UK we live in a constitutional democracy with checks and balances on Executive power. We were also reminded that so long as Scotland remains part of this Union, Scots law and the Scottish judiciary are deserving of respect—because let us not forget that the 11 UK Supreme Court justices followed the unanimous decision of the three judges in Scotland’s highest court, the Inner House of the Court of Session. In Scotland, our democratic and constitutional tradition goes back to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, which we will be celebrating 700 years of next year, and the Claim of Right in 1689. The principle of those documents is that neither the sovereign nor the Government is above the law. It was very refreshing to hear Lady Hale remind us that the same has been the position in England since at least 1611 when she said in her statement on Tuesday:
“As long ago as 1611, the court held that ‘the King (who was then the government) hath no prerogative but that which the law of the land allows him’.”
So constitutional democracy means not a tyranny by the Executive but parliamentary democracy with checks and balances. As Lord Drummond Young said in Scotland’s highest court:
“The courts cannot subject the actings of the executive to political scrutiny, but they can and should ensure that the body charged with performing that task, Parliament, is able to do so.”
I do not think that anyone on these Benches will take any lectures from members of the Conservative and Unionist party about the importance of democracy when it was their leader who tried to shut down parliamentary democracy for five weeks at a time of constitutional crisis in the UK.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for offering me the chance to intervene. The point I would make is that we have had this huge national drama over the past couple of weeks as to whether the Prorogation will be ended, because so many Members of Parliament were so extremely zealous to attend and to address the issue of Brexit. But if we look at the Opposition Benches, there are almost as many SNP Members here as Labour Members—that’s it—and there are only four of them.
Perhaps if the Government brought some proper business forward, there would be more people here.
I want to return to what Lady Hale said. The judgment of the Supreme Court this week was not very complicated. Many Government Members suggested yesterday that it made new law—it did not. Lady Hale was simply expressing a principle that goes far back in the Scottish constitutional tradition and also in the English tradition that the Government are not above the law. She stressed two principles of our democracy: parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary accountability. The Executive must be accountable to Parliament. It puzzles me that so many parliamentarians thought this was a novel statement of the British constitution, but that is perhaps because of the lack of a written constitution in the United Kingdom.
Many Members in this House—particularly those on the Opposition Benches—will be familiar with the writings of Justice Albie Sachs of the South African Supreme Court, a great jurist and freedom fighter. When he sat down to write the constitution of the new South Africa, he was shocked to find that Britain, which he was looking to for guidance, did not have a written constitution. One of the things that the Brexit crisis and the horror with which the UK Supreme Court judgment has been greeted by some illustrates is the need for the United Kingdom to have a written constitution. But I am afraid to say that I will not be holding my breath for constitutional reform in the United Kingdom. The Scots are very familiar with the oft mentioned promise of federalism whenever Scotland looks close to voting for independence. Gordon Brown is normally wheeled out to promise federalism, but there is never any appetite in this House to make that a reality.
There are many things that could be done to improve British democracy, but the horrified reaction to the checks and balances imposed by the United Kingdom Supreme Court last week shows me that Government Members do not actually understand their own constitution and would probably find it very hard to write it down. Brexit has thrown the constitution of the United Kingdom into crisis. In 2014, during the Scottish independence referendum, which was a great deal more civilised affair than the EU referendum—[Interruption.] Well, nobody lost their life during the Scottish independence referendum.
No, I will not give way. The Scottish Conservatives—and sometimes, I am afraid to say, the Scottish Labour party, but in fairness, not the English Labour party—often like to peddle the myth that the Scottish independence referendum was a violent affair. It was not. I was there. It was a celebration of democracy, and I am pleased to say that nobody lost their life.
I return to the Brexit process. It has thrown the UK constitution into crisis because although there are four constituent parts of this Union, two out of the four of them voted remain, and that has been wholly ignored. That could never happen in the European Union. If the European Union was taking a decision as momentous as Brexit, even a small country the size of Ireland, Scotland or Malta would have a veto.
The reason why this is important is that while the Unionist parties were participating in the festival of democracy that was the 2014 independence referendum, they promised people in Scotland that we were an equal partner in the Union and that the way to retain our EU citizenship was to vote to remain part of the UK. Both those promises have been broken. The Scottish Parliament has come under attack, and constitutional conventions such as the Sewel convention that were put on a statutory footing have had a carriage and horses driven through them.
The result of all that is that a YouGov poll published earlier this month showed that the majority of Scots want a second vote on independence. Of course, the last time Scotland voted for Members of the Scottish Parliament, it elected a majority of MSPs who want a second independence referendum, and the last time Scotland voted for MPs in this House, it elected a majority of MPs who want a second independence referendum. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Many Conservative Members—in particular the right hon. Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and the Attorney General have said in public, “You cannot keep a country in a union against its will.” Of course, they were talking about England and the European Union. It is going to prove impossible in the long term to keep Scotland in this Union against its will, and if democracy means anything it means recognising the mandate that exists in Scotland for a second independence referendum and granting the Scots a second independence referendum, because that is what the majority want.
We in this place are all custodians of this country’s democracy, and I think it is right that we should feel that as a heavy weight on our shoulders. In many ways, the reason why yesterday was such a difficult day in this Parliament is that we faced a perfect storm. We faced questions at the very heart of our principles of democracy. We faced questions about freedom of speech and the rule of law; fundamental questions about the very functioning of this Parliament, all of which are at the core of our democracy.
I will deal with each of those so that Members might reflect as we move forward on how we can strengthen our democracy and not undermine it, albeit unintentionally. Members are right that language matters in politics; behaviour matters in politics. I am afraid that the inflammatory language used by Members accusing others of being inflammatory was as damaging as damaging can be. We have to tread carefully in what yesterday became high politics, which risked people feeling as if they could not speak out in the way that they wanted in this Chamber.
It is important that we all accept that we are all entirely responsible for our language and the speeches that we make, from the Prime Minister to the most humble Back Bencher. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the things that was absent from the urgent question earlier today was a sense of personal responsibility? Is it not incumbent on us all to think of a time when we have impugned the motives of another Member and seek them out this afternoon and simply apologise? Is that not a way we can move on and make this a better place?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We do need to work together. That is what we do most of the time. Hon. Members have said that calling the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Bill a surrender Bill is in some way inflammatory. It is not. It is simply a way of explaining to people who did not, as all of us did, read it word for word. I could say that calling something a bedroom tax is inflammatory, but this is part of the cut and thrust of politics. For hon. Members to intimidate other hon. Members using that language is wrong, and people should examine their motives for doing so.
The rule of law matters—the second principle and core of our democracy. It is right that the Government—I heard it from both the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister—respect and accept the Court’s ruling. But that does not mean to say that they cannot disagree with it. Anyone in this Chamber who has been a Minister will know that Minister’s judgments are often taken to judicial review. While Ministers accept the findings, they may not particularly agree with them. Why on earth would judicial review be brought in the first place if things were so clear?
Finally, a functioning Parliament matters above all else. It matters that we do nothing to undermine the very core of our democracy, which is a functioning Parliament. If we do that and make Parliament a weaker place while we are here, we are doing a disservice to our constituents. At the moment, at best we have a weak Parliament; some may call it a dysfunctional Parliament or, worse, an illegitimate Parliament.
We are perceived by many of the public to have ignored the referendum result, and we also run the risk of being perceived as a weak Parliament because we are blocking a general election. We are perceived as a weak Parliament because we have a Speaker who is about to retire, and because we have many disenfranchised Members of Parliament on all sides of the House. Those Members may have been elected under one party banner, but they now do not have that banner, and that is what our constituents see day in, day out.
The Minister was right when he said that politicians do not get to choose which votes to respect, and until those who are attempting to block the referendum result change their ways, we risk fundamentally undermining people’s faith not just in politics, but in Parliament itself. In doing so, we risk undermining their faith in democracy in Britain.
I was last elected in 2017 on a Labour manifesto to leave the European Union. Just before that general election I voted for article 50, and subsequently I voted for two different versions of leaving the EU, neither of which were passed by this House. I voted against the previous Prime Minister’s deal because I thought that it undermined the integrity of the UK. Despite the fact that I voted remain in the referendum, on a number of occasions I have voted to leave the European Union, as we all know what the result in the country showed.
Given the time limit, I wish to direct my remarks at the integrity of the Vote Leave campaign and those who ran it, including the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office—I have notified them both that I will refer to them in this speech—as well as Dominic Cummings who advises them, because I think that their conduct and the Vote Leave campaign undermines the vote that took place in 2016. For around two years, I have worked on an inquiry by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee into disinformation and fake news, and I now have a detailed knowledge of the actions of the Vote Leave campaign, which I did not have when I voted to leave the European Union in this House.
The Vote Leave campaign broke electoral law by conspiring to break campaign spending limits. It did so in a document produced by the Electoral Commission that refers to emails and information from Dominic Cummings. He was working as the campaign director for the Vote Leave campaign, and he conspired with another organisation, suggesting the following:
“However, there is another organisation that could spend your money. Would you be willing to send the 100k to some social media ninjas who could usefully spend it on behalf of this organisation? I am very confident it would be well spent in the final crucial 5 days. Obviously it would be entirely legal.”
In fact, it was entirely illegal and the Vote Leave campaign was found to have committed an electoral offence. The illegality of the Vote Leave campaign meant that it was fined, and those fines were accepted by the campaign itself. Unlike in general elections, breaking the law in a referendum campaign does not overturn the result; it simply imposes a financial penalty.
The DCMS Committee wanted to speak to Mr Cummings, because his evidence is directly relevant to the inquiry and work that we have been carrying out. We wished to speak to him about the relationship with a Canadian company called AggregateIQ, and we asked him to speak to us and give us information. He was found to be in contempt of Parliament because he refused to come and give evidence. He disrespected Parliament. When he was appointed as the Prime Minister’s adviser, after he had been found in contempt of Parliament, the Committee wrote again, asking the Prime Minister to instruct Mr Cummings to give evidence. The Prime Minister has refused and is thereby obstructing a parliamentary inquiry. That is the conduct of the Prime Minister and it shows real disrespect to Parliament.
We also know that the Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office, who was a co-convener of the campaign, is now in charge of electoral reform and data protection in the Cabinet Office—at least I thought that was the case. Yesterday, I asked him whether he had overall control of all the matters in his Department, and he said he was not in control of data protection or electoral matters, which is very odd, because they are situated in his Department.
Even more extraordinary was that when I checked the Cabinet Office website today I saw that it had changed since yesterday. The Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office has deliberately taken steps to avoid responsibility for the role that he played in the Vote Leave campaign. That is mendacious, to quote David Cameron, and the Secretary of State needs to come to the Chamber urgently to explain his role in the Vote Leave campaign and what was involved.
It is a great pleasure to follow my near neighbour from Wrexham, though sadly in the time available I will not pick up his points.
I would like to pick up on the early intervention by Mrs Moon, who mentioned an horrific attack this afternoon using the word “fascist”. I must sadly remind her that there is balance on both sides. I am a member of the European Research Group.
Totally understood. The hon. Lady reported this horrendous and completely unacceptable incident. I was making the point that all of us should watch our language, but sadly one of her colleagues compared the ERG to Nazis. If you google “ERG fascists”, you get 227,000 results, and if you google “ERG extremists”, you get 176,000. We in the ERG would like a system of government where Members are elected to this House, from which a Government is formed. If that Government perform satisfactorily, tax sensibly and spend money sensibly, they are re-elected. If they do not perform well, they are removed by voting. That is a pretty basic summary of representative democracy.
The problem now in this country is the huge collision with the juggernaut of direct democracy. I think we have had 11 referendums in recent decades, and they have all pretty well gone along with what the establishment wanted. The political and commercial establishment were happy with the results—on Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and probably the alternative vote referendum too.
Then we have this current problem. In 2015, David Cameron promised, “If you vote Conservative, we will give you a one-off in/out referendum. We the MPs will give you the people the right to decide whether we stay in or leave the EU.” Possibly to his surprise, he won the election, and then promised to deliver. Mr Hammond took the referendum Bill through the House in 2015. In his winding-up speech, he gave a pretty good summary. He said:
“But whether we favour Britain being in or out, we surely should all be able to agree on the simple principle that the decision about our membership should be taken by the British people, not by Whitehall bureaucrats, certainly not by Brussels Eurocrats;
not even by Government Ministers or parliamentarians in this Chamber.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 596, c. 1056.]
The Bill got 544 votes on Second Reading.
We then had the referendum itself. People were bombarded with a Government document costing £9 million. It was made very clear that this was a one-off and that the people would decide—that it was not an advisory referendum, but was giving a clear steer to Parliament and that parliamentarians would have to honour it. That was the understanding: whatever the decision, parliamentarians would deliver.
We then had the biggest vote in British history—17.4 million on a single issue against 16.1 million to remain. The conundrum is this. In the ensuing general election, in which, in fairness to my right hon. Friend Mrs May who is not in her seat at the moment, she got the second largest number of votes ever—13.6 million—in a general election, her manifesto was very simple. The Conservative party was elected on a manifesto that we would honour the referendum, leave the single market, leave the customs union and leave the remit of the European Court of Justice. Although woollier, there was pretty clear language in the Labour party manifesto that it would honour the referendum result. According to one assessment, what we have against that in this Parliament, which is a remain Parliament, is 485 Members supporting remain and only 162 supporting leave. We may never ever have a referendum again, but I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this has to be delivered. The people were told very clearly, “You vote Conservative in that original general election, we will give you the chance.” They were told during the referendum campaign, “You vote to leave, it will be delivered.” They were told by the two main parties that they would honour the result, but here we are, three years on, and this has not been delivered.
There are Members chuntering about no deal, but this is all a bit of a shibboleth. We are talking about leaving a customs union to which 8% of our businesses send goods. Our sales of goods to this organisation represent 8.2% of GDP and our sales of services 5.5%. This will not bring the roof down.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Does he share with me the frustration and anger that I hear every day in my constituency? People say to me, “You asked for our opinion. We gave you our opinion. Why have you not left yet and what are you still talking about?”
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. People come up to me the whole time. The words that I get so frequently are, “Just get on with it.” Let us take up an earlier intervention. We are talking about normalisation. Our sales of goods and services are a bit over 13%. It is inconceivable that, even if we did have no deal—do not forget that on page 36 of our manifesto, we said that, “No deal is better than a bad deal”—we have agreements on aviation, we have heard from Calais and we have heard from Dover. All this stuff about no deal is a shield, and it is a shield for Members who do not want us to leave. My proposition is that if we do not deliver on the referendum, that will be far more damaging to this country. The damage to the integrity of all our institutions will be absolutely shattering, compared with just a little bit of interruption, which can be sorted out at our borders and which all those bodies who run the borders say do not represent a problem.
We may never ever have another referendum. We may go back to what my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke describes—he dismisses this as an opinion poll. He is a strong believer in parliamentary democracy. I am as well, but we gave people the choice. We cannot put that back in the bottle. I appeal to all Members, particularly those on the Opposition Benches, to recognise that we have only a few short weeks in which to deliver what the people voted for, and they really must consider the extraordinary anger that could result. British people are very patient, but as my hon. Friend has just said, they are getting really angry. They have been thwarted and they know perfectly well that the establishment has thwarted them. The establishment was very happy with the results of those previous 11 referendums. For the first time, the vote went against them. What we have to do now is to deliver so that we can remove that anger and leave the European Union on
That felt very much like a very personal discussion between Mr Paterson and me, as his eyes seemed to be on me all the time.
I want to look at the wider nature of this debate. I received an email this morning from someone who says that they are a Bridgend constituent. They say that there is a debate warming up on Facebook in a closed Bridgend debate group regarding my participation in Parliament. Indeed, many constituents currently believe that I am not present and committed to Parliament as much as I may need to be in these difficult times in UK politics. Many feel that I have additional responsibilities that take precedence, so they want me to confirm my calendar leading up to Brexit and how much time I will be dedicating to London and spending in the Chamber.
Apparently, there is a lack of information online about my whereabouts in general as an elected representative and about my availability, so I need to log in and tell people more often where I am. There is concern about my surgeries and my availability, and I am asked whether I can confirm whether, and in what capacity, I am conducting surgeries in the coming months, as constituents have concerns about Brexit and require my availability on many issues. There have also been rumours that my surgeries have been put on hold for reasons relating to security issues. I am asked whether I can confirm that those issues are being resolved immediately, because many MPs are having security issues—one had been attacked that day—but can still conduct their surgeries safely by putting processes in place, so those issues may not be a viable excuse for cancelling surgeries.
I have two additional responsibilities in this House: I am a member of the Speaker's Panel and I am president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Many Members are elected to institutions outside this House, such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Those are critical democratic institutions, and we take an active role in them in spreading democracy, spreading information and, in my case in particular, dealing with the defence and security of the United Kingdom.
TheyWorkForYou says that I have above-average commitments in terms of debates, I ask above-average numbers of questions and I have an above-average response to my electorate when I have letters, although I admit that it also indicates that my voting record is lower than some. Therefore, as the president of the NATO Parliament—I have to say I had total endorsement and written communication from Mrs May when I put my name forward—I am deeply concerned that I am being challenged on my commitment to democracy, and to Brexit in particular, and that that is how we define a Member of Parliament’s commitment to this democratic institution and to defence and security.
I have been advised by the police not to give advance notice of where I am going. It is fine to tweet and to post on Facebook after, but certainly not before. I am concerned that I will not be available over the next two weekends because of commitments I have on behalf of this Parliament and on behalf of institutions that we respect and see as critical to democracy. I hope we never lose a sense of the right of democracy to be wider than one issue.
I have to say that it has been a pretty bad-natured 24 hours and, as far as I can see, a fairly bad-natured two years, so I will try to make some fairly blunt points, but I will do so in moderated and moderate language.
I do not think I am above anybody, and I am happy to be criticised; actually, I try to judge my own party more harshly and to have higher standards than others, because I think that is a good way to conduct oneself.
I am a big fan of democracy, because my parents’ lives were shaped by tyranny. My British granddad was burned alive in his tank in 1942, killed at the hands of the Nazis, and my German grandmum was killed by the Soviets, so the Nazis killed one of my grandparents and the Soviets killed another. I am lucky that I live in a democracy, and I hope I always respect and appreciate that.
Mrs Moon talked about threats. I say just for the record—this is not a competition with anybody—that the last threat to my health and safety that had to be reported to the police was last week. I do not make a song and dance about it. I do not make out that I am a victim. I do not use it for political capital. I make sure my staff are okay, we report it to the police and we crack on. I take is as part of the job, but I do not become a diva about it. At various points in my life—as a foreign correspondent, as a soldier, as a Member of Parliament—I have had people try to kill or harm me, or tell me they are going to kill me or harm me. I am delighted to say that so far they have been unsuccessful, and I am content for that to continue.
As to rules of public debate, I think that public debate should be conducted in good faith. A critical element of that is that those who lose elections and referendums need to respect the results. This Parliament is trying to worm its way out of that fundamental issue of respecting the 2016 mandate. I congratulate Cat Smith on her speech, but for me it was simply more of the same: “The European Union vote was not about the European Union.” I think that it was. There is one thing that is worse than that vote for remainers—I am a Brexiteer and am happy to leave—and that is not respecting that vote, because the contempt of the British people for the political classes will simply grow.
I believe that the language of this place needs to be temperate. We have seen, I am afraid to say, months of poisonous and hysterical language—often from the left, but not always—about coups and dictatorships, and a level of personal abuse aimed at this Prime Minister unseen since the days of Mrs Thatcher. [Interruption.] I am happy to give way to Lloyd Russell-Moyle if he would like. I have found that language to be entirely corrosive to the public debate.
“It’s early doors Piers but I say this hand on heart: go”— eff—
“yourself. You’re a waste of space, air and skin. Trying to use Jo against us whilst encouraging the fascists is shocking even for a scrote like you. You make me sick.”
That is an MP engaging in political debate now. I have seen a lot of the literature that came out of the Labour party conference. There was, “How to get rid of Tom Watson”, who is a “treacherous incumbent”. I will not even begin to talk about the debate on antisemitism.
There is a problem with the left in this country. There is a problem with the hard-Brexit right—not in Parliament, but on the fringes UKIP for sure—but there is a problem with the left about moral purity. Some Opposition Members are seeing that in the deselection campaigns that are being fought against them. We make no such claim of moral purity. For us, politics is not about moral purity; it is about doing the best job we can. Personally, I think people on the other side of the House are generally wrong, but I do not subscribe to them a moral motive; I do not believe they are immoral.
Fundamentally, too much politics in the modern day is about moral purity and finding moral benefit over other people, which I think is profoundly wrong. Respecting each other but thinking that we can do a better job than those on the other side of the House is the way to make progress in a democracy. There is a corrosive debate in the Labour party, which is affecting not only the futures of Opposition Members but politics in general, and it needs to end.
In Dulwich and West Norwood, 77% of people voted to remain in the EU—the seventh highest pro-remain vote in the country. My constituents are not remoaners; they are not anti-democratic. They are citizens with deeply held and sincere convictions. Yet since June 2016, 77% of my constituents and 48% of voters across the country have been told that we must be quiet and that our views no longer count. We have been told to be silent in the face of the Government’s own evidence that Brexit will harm the UK economy. We have been told to be silent as we raise important questions about the future of scientific research, supply of medicines, regulation of chemicals and the future of trade. We have been told to be silent as we raise grave concerns—not discussed at all during the referendum campaign—about the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday agreement and peace in Northern Ireland. We have been told to be silent as we have raised concerns about the increase in hate crime and the anxiety of EU nationals living in our communities.
The continual dismissal and denigration of the views of 48% of UK voters—77% of my constituents—has been extraordinary. It is not how Governments should, or usually do, behave in a democracy.
In 2016, faced with a very narrow result, Mrs May had the opportunity to define Brexit in a way that reached across the divide—in a way that took seriously both the result of the advisory referendum and the concerns of almost half of those who voted about the impact of Brexit on our economy, security, rights, and access to medicines. Instead she spent six months saying nothing but “Brexit means Brexit”, while the right of the Tory party, and Nigel Farage, moved into the vacuum and defined Brexit as the hardest, most extreme Brexit possible.
It is a principle of democracy that we all seek to win the argument—that we seek to provide evidence to justify a position, to reassure and persuade those who disagree with us, and ultimately to achieve a mandate to proceed. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead put her Tory-party-facing version of Brexit to the people in 2017, and they took away her majority and her mandate.
In this context, it is no surprise that my constituents’ pro-remain views and their deep fears about what Brexit will mean for them, and for our country as a whole, have only grown and strengthened, these past three years. The Government have done nothing to reassure them; nothing to provide evidence that their concerns are unfounded; nothing to prove that they respect and take seriously their values and their views. Instead we have a Prime Minister who is facing down his opponents with the language of hate, a Government who have failed to provide any assurance that our communities—
I do not quite understand how the hon. Lady can keep talking about the language of hate when I have just given her examples of the abuse that Labour MPs are putting out there about their opponents, and also material from the Labour party conference, which I presume that she may have been at, where she sees the abuse from extremists aimed at moderate Labour party MPs. The abuse is coming from the left.
To be absolutely clear, the reference to a surrender Bill—the language of “traitors”, the language of “surrender”, is the language of war, and that is being used by our Prime Minister, in an utterly irresponsible and reckless way.
As I was saying, the Government have done nothing to prove that they respect and take seriously the values and views of my constituents. We have a Government who have failed to provide assurance that communities will not face job losses, shortages of food and medicine, and lower environmental standards; and a Government who are prepared to put at risk peace in Northern Ireland, casting aside the Good Friday agreement.
Democracy is a process of governance, not a moment in time. In a context where the Government have failed to reach out, failed to engage and reassure, and failed to provide evidence and win the argument, the only option is to allow that process to continue—to hold another vote, not on the same proposition as the first, but on what we now know, to allow people to vote again on whether they have confidence that the Government have been able to negotiate a deal that can secure their future, protecting their jobs and security.
I say this again: my constituents are not remoaners; they are engaged citizens—internationalist and outward-looking in their views and values, worried about their families, their communities and their future, and this Government have ignored, denigrated and failed to reassure and convince them. They deserve better than this failing Government and our reckless, irresponsible Prime Minister. They deserve more democracy, not less. They deserve a people’s vote.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I would like to start by rebutting some of the points made by Joanna Cherry, although she is not in her place just now. She made some pretty clear points. She said that a horse and cart had been driven through the Sewel convention. That was not true; Lord Sewel himself said that the convention was respected. There was also a bizarre revisionist history moment when she talked about a Union between England and Ireland that never happened; it was a Union between Ireland and Great Britain, which of course included Scotland. Finally, the hon. and learned Lady said that the vast majority of people in Scotland wanted separation. Unfortunately, according to the polls since 2015, 78%, versus 8%, would vote to maintain the United Kingdom.
I have returned to those points because facts matter. The picking and choosing of results—and history, as was evidenced in the House earlier today—makes for terrible politics. I have a lot of respect for some Scottish National party Members, not least because of some of the legal actions that have been taken in the last week or so. They champion the rule of law, which I always respect. However, we get into a very difficult situation when politicians take results, especially results of referendums, and try to cut them one way or the other. In 2014, for example, it was clear that the Union had won. People wanted Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The result was 55:45. That was a 10-point margin, which is a huge margin. If it happened in a general election, it would be described as a landslide. Yet SNP Members continue to champion the 45%—which is fair enough; they are elected, and I respect that.
I agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. As he says, following the referendum, the division—particularly in terms of language—is still there. It is unhelpful when people who serve in government, such as Mike Russell, describe the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs as traitors by referring to the Ragman Rolls. This is the nationalist perspective in Scotland now. It is yet another example of how people are seeking to demonise those who hold different opinions, or treating them as “other”. That is what comes of nationalism.
My hon. Friend is right. SNP MPs and MSPs are on record as calling Scottish Conservatives traitors because they do not back SNP lines, and as saying that if we do not vote with the SNP we are somehow betraying Scotland. I do not think that that is true, and it is certainly not the rhetoric that we would choose to use on this side of the House. As I look across the Chamber, I see several SNP Members for whom I have the utmost respect, and I know that they do not use that language; but some others do. Indeed, there are Members in all parts of the House who probably need to review their use of language, both in this place and online.
I was making a point about proportions and how they are represented. Why should that 45% figure be presented to us, while the 42% who voted in Clackmannanshire, in my constituency, to leave the European Union are completely disregarded? Why is the 45 threshold so much higher than 42? It is completely arbitrary. It is the choice of a political party, the whim of a politician, to choose one percentage over another, and I do not think that that is good enough in a modern democracy. We need to respect the individual vote as much as we respect an individual life and an individual himself. Their vote is worth just as much in Clackmannanshire as it is in Bristol, Cheltenham, Cardiff, or anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and we need to respect that.
Let me finally deal with my greatest concern and what is, I think, the greatest challenge to liberal democracies: nationalism. It can be of any hue, whether it is Scottish nationalism, English nationalism, Irish nationalism or American nationalism. Whatever guise it decides to take, nationalism is one of the most regressive political forces in modern politics and in the 21st century. The First Minister of Scotland experienced that when she went to Germany to receive an award. Elif Shafak said to her that, despite the different connotations, nationalism could never really be benign.
I was lucky enough to attend a meeting of European young leaders. Among them was the inspirational leader of the Liberal party, which had just won the elections in Catalonia on a unionist ticket, conveying a message of trying to unite Catalonia and unite Spain and take people forward. I think that that is an incredibly positive message. Something very clear came out of that meeting, and it stands for Donald Trump as it stands for any other politician. Nationalism is simply a manifestation of a set of ideas that are intended to divide people into “us” and “them”. It is a presentation of simple answers to incredibly complicated questions. It is not good enough for our constituents, and it certainly not good enough for the United Kingdom in the 21st century.
This issue is also important because what is said in the House, what is said online on Twitter and Facebook, and what is said in print overlaps, and spills over into everyday life. I had to raise a point of order in the House once because a member of my staff who was alone in my constituency office was threatened by two people claiming to be nationalist supporters, saying that if Scotland became separate, she would be hanged. Furthermore, that same staff member, when she was in her local Co-Op buying her almond milk, was told to go back to England. The person in question who challenged my staff member was very surprised when my staff member was able to inform him that she had been born in Namibia but raised in Stirling.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about nationalism, is he seriously trying to suggest that the Scottish National party can in any way be equated with the other types of nationalism that he is referring to? I am an Australian with an English father, but I have never felt anything other than welcome in the Scottish National party, of which I have been a member for 20 years. Will he explain that to us?
The point I am making is about nationalism as a whole. Nationalism of any kind, regardless of the connotations, can rarely be benign because it divides people, and yes, the SNP—in its rhetoric and what it does—seeks to divide the United Kingdom. That is the raison d’être of the SNP; it wants to break up the country—
No. The hon. Lady says independence; I say separation. That is the purpose of this debate. I am quite happy to debate this robustly and to use facts and figures, but it is clear that nationalism and the SNP want to divide our nation on the lines of geographical boundaries. This is not about dividing the country on principles or ideas; if it were, we would be asking for a union with London, Bristol, Manchester and, I believe, Cardiff, who all voted remain in the European Union referendum.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is a Union of two countries? He is suggesting that Scotland is the same as Birmingham or any city—well respected as they are—within England, but that is not the same thing. We are talking about a Union supposedly of equals, that is anything but. I would suggest that the people of Scotland have every right to make a decision against—
The hon. Lady wants to look at Hansard and actually listen to what I said. I said that the SNP was about dividing our country along geographical lines and that if we want to talk about principles, we can find alliances, challenges and opportunities right across these isles, as we have done for over three centuries in the most successful political union the Earth has ever seen. I fear that I am not going to agree with SNP colleagues today.
The bottom line is that people are angry and concerned, as they should be the 21st century, as we face challenges from climate change, from technological innovation and from abroad. When people are angry, MPs need to step up and listen to that anger. They need to channel the anger and use it to make constructive, progressive suggestions to bring this country forward together.
I am pleased to follow Luke Graham. I agree that nationalism is a real problem. That is why it is such a shame that some Members in his party—maybe not him—seem to be pursuing an English nationalist policy that is likely to lead to the break-up of our Union. If it is done badly, that policy could lead to a hard border in Northern Ireland, to the departure of Northern Ireland and to further fragmentation. It is based on the view that the English nation should rule over other nations, and that those nations’ views of the Union should be disregarded because English nationalism is the most important. I believe that is what some of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues are pursuing in their hard Brexit view. That is very worrying, and we should reflect on it across the House.
I also agree with the views of my hon. Friend Helen Hayes. She described the importance of hearing all the voices in a debate. For me, the principle of democracy is that the losing side should be able to keep making its argument. As soon as that principle is removed, democracy has ended. If we say that a moment in time that will quickly vanish into the history books over the next three or four years should hold and bind all peoples and that alternatives should not be pursued, that will have a chilling effect on our wider democracy. Why not say that we will cancel all future elections? Why not say that the Opposition should not be allowed into the Chamber this week because the Government won the last election and only the Government should rule? I respect the result of the last general election, and not only because I was elected in it and defeated a Conservative. However, the first thing I did was vote against the Queen’s Speech. The first vote I cast was to defeat the manifesto that had just won and to attempt to bring down the Government and force a new election. That is the Opposition’s right in a democracy—to keep opposing. It is not the duty of Oppositions to implement the winning side’s programme; that is the duty of the winning side. That is true in a general election and in a referendum.
We talk about respecting different sides. I come from a remain area, but there are some leave areas that are sceptical about how things are playing out. Those views must be respected. I fear that the way in which some of the Conservative hardcore Brexiteers disrespect Opposition views is a symbol of how they treat democracy more broadly.
Let us consider electoral registration and the boundary changes. Rather than choosing a high moment to draw boundary lines—for example, at the time of the referendum or a general election—it was deliberately done at a time when the number of people on the electoral register was at its lowest. It happened just after we had changed to individual registration, but before any public vote had taken place. We know many people who choose or remember—it is not a choice; everyone should do it—to register when an election comes round. Why on earth do we not draw the boundaries according to the census? Why not include everyone in the debate? What happened with registration is a sign that the Government are disingenuous about including all voices.
Rather than trying to set up citizens’ assemblies, open up a national discussion about how our country goes forward or open up the register, perhaps allowing, for example, schools to register people to vote, the Government close down the debate. They say that we surrender if we question a way forward; that people cannot register to vote unless they fit into small parameters, and that they will redraw boundaries to exclude people disproportionately. That is the nature of our democracy: fragile. I hope that we regain it.
It turns out that a week is indeed a long time in politics. Let us remember that this time last week, Parliament had been shut down by the Prime Minister, who had forced through an unlawful Prorogation. Then, following a resounding defeat in the Supreme Court, Parliament was ordered to return this week, and the British Government have the brass neck today to table a motion on the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate—just days after they shut down the electorate’s ability to be represented in this place by their elected representatives.
We should not really be surprised by that hypocrisy because the British Parliament is a place of limited and diminishing democracy. If the Government want a debate on the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate, let us start with the House of Lords, which is second in size only to the People’s Congress of China, and is bloated with more than 800 Members who are eligible to vote on legislation. Let us not forget that the majority of those along the Corridor are life peers and have never been voted in by our electorate. Others include 26 archbishops and bishops and 92 hereditary peers. Other than Iran and the Isle of Man, we are the only country in the world in which clerics have the right to legislate. Other than Lesotho, we are the only country in which 92 hereditary chieftains have the birthright to make law.
The stymieing of British democracy is not confined to our neighbours in ermine. Even in this Chamber, democracy is supressed and stymied at every turn. We have a Government who refuse to respect Opposition day votes. In my party’s case, the Government have even failed to allocate the requisite number of Opposition days for a two-year Session in accordance with the House’s Standing Orders.
We have a British Government that are trying to cut the number of MPs in this House. Not content with that, and despite the House’s voting for it on Second Reading, the Government are withholding a money resolution for the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, which was passed by democratic majority on the Floor of this Chamber almost two years ago, but is still stuck in purgatory on the Committee Corridor. We have a Prime Minister who plays Russian roulette with the constitution and judiciary and openly casts doubt on his willingness to comply with the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019. In short, we have a Government who have, at best, a questionable record on honouring democracy and respecting the rights of the electorate. Perhaps that is best demonstrated by their appalling attitude to the Scottish Government, who in 2016 got a mandate from the people to hold an independence referendum, yet the British Government say no. One thing is clear: this Government cannot keep saying no. Very soon the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to reject the British stymieing of democracy and, instead, embrace the normal status of an independent state within the family of European nations.
I thank all hon. Members for taking part in this all too brief debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle). It is an honour that the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, is a Member of this House and sits on the same Benches as me.
The issues discussed in today’s debate could not be more important, and I welcome Mr Speaker’s guidance today that we should moderate our behaviour, although civility should never be used as a mask to prevent the seeking of the truth or the holding of the Government to account. At a time when the country and the House are deeply divided and the spotlight shines on politicians like never before, it is vital that we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of democracy and remind ourselves of the rights of the electorate and our duties to them as their representatives.
I only ever feel great pride in representing the people of the City of Chester in this place, and Mr Baker is right to say that most hon. Members—in fact, I would say almost all hon. Members—are here with the best of motives for their constituents.
Why have the Government chosen today to discuss the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate? Is it because they respect these crucial principles and rights? I think not. Democracy is not just about elections; it is about respecting the institutions that underpin our democracy. The Attorney General’s pantomime bombast in denouncing this Parliament yesterday will no doubt have the effect he intends, which is to damage people’s faith in democracy, yet the Government had the nerve to call a debate today about the principles of the very democracy they seek to undermine.
Let me be clear to the Attorney General and this House: this Parliament was elected in 2017 because the Conservative party tried to cut and run by calling a snap general election. This Parliament accurately reflects the divisions in the country on Brexit, and it is doing the job it was returned to do—my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood referenced that point.
Although the Minister referred in his opening speech to the Labour and Conservative manifestos, which both mentioned respecting the result of the referendum, I remind him that neither said we would leave without a deal. That is what the Brexit fundamentalists controlling the Conservative party are now pushing for.
Democracy is about respecting the rules of the game, and we know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, that the leave campaign broke the rules during the referendum on such things as data transfer and spending, as well as being untruthful to the electorate. We still do not know where the money channelled to the leave campaign via the Democratic Unionist party came from.
Why is that important? As my hon. Friend reminded the House, it is because the same people who broke the rules when running the leave campaign are now in charge of this Government, whether it is Dominic Cummings, whose commitment to democracy is such that he has been found in contempt of Parliament, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who continues to dodge my hon. Friend’s questions about what he knew and when about the Vote Leave funding misdemeanours. This does not appear to be a Government who are committed democracy. More, it is a Government who are committed to power by any means––a Government who believe that the rules of democracy do not apply to them.
My hon. Friends on the Government Benches—decent Conservatives whom I do consider to be friends—must be aghast at what has happened over the last couple of days in the name of their party. They must reel their leader back in.
The Supreme Court found that the Prorogation was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification. Although the Supreme Court’s judgment was utterly devastating, it provides a legal opinion on a truth with which we and the rest of the country are now already familiar. The truth is that the Prime Minister has no respect for the law, no respect for democracy and no respect for the electorate. His whole career as a journalist and as a politician has been defined by an arrogance that leads him to think he can disregard everything and get away with anything.
Like the previous Government, the current one is defined by their total lack of respect for this House and for the public. David Linden, speaking on behalf of the SNP, mentioned not getting enough Opposition days and how Opposition day votes are ignored. This morning, we heard the Father of the House and others raise concerns that the Government are operating a deliberate strategy of division and inflaming tensions, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend referred to in an earlier intervention, quoting a Government spokesman.
The Government operate with a secrecy and evasion that betray utter contempt for the electorate and for democracy. They have tried to keep this House in the dark. If it were not for this House demanding that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster publish the now notorious Yellowhammer papers, we would still be relying on leaked excerpts in the press and rumours around Whitehall. At least now we know, in the Government’s own words, just how disastrous a no-deal Brexit would be for this country. Due to the lack of time, we will not be able to go into the detail of the Yellowhammer papers, but it is enough to say that there are few more disgraceful episodes in our country’s recent history than a Tory Government willing to countenance food, fuel and medicine shortages just to appease a few no-deal obsessives in their own party and the Brexit party.
I suspect that the details of the Yellowhammer papers will not be mentioned in the Government’s Get Ready for Brexit scheme, which appears to me and many others to be the most expensive party political advertising scheme this country has ever seen. I have written to the Cabinet Secretary to see if he shares my opinion and to seek clarification as to whether the campaign has breached the rules that prohibit the Government from using public funds for party political purposes.
We will not allow a no-deal Brexit to go through, but let me be clear: once no deal is off the table, we will use every power at our disposal to secure a general election, and when it comes we will be ready for it. The public will be ready for it, too: after a decade of Tory austerity, the electorate is crying out for real change and we are ready to deliver it. We will not, however, fall into the trap that the Conservatives are setting us of giving them the opportunity to force through a no-deal Brexit against the wishes of this House and in the face of the democracy that this House has decided.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. This has been a fascinating debate and we have heard a range of contributions. In the spirit of civility, I say that I always enjoy my conversations with my two shadows, the hon. Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). I hope they agree that we treat each other with respect and that although we may disagree at times, we are still able to find common ground in the mutual interest of those we represent.
I will start by responding to some of the issues raised. Contrary to some of the comments we have heard, the individual electoral registration reforms produced the biggest electoral roll ever at the last general election, with more people registering to vote than ever before. Online registration is one of the easiest methods for younger voters in particular to get themselves on the electoral roll. That is a sign of commitment. It is now literally possible to register online. People can do it in a few minutes. They no longer have to get a form and send it to their local council. Obviously, the arrangements in Northern Ireland are slightly different. Many of us know the reasons for that, and it has a more devolved structure.
I will not take interventions, given that I have given up time to allow more Members to contribute to the debate.
We are also looking at reforming the annual canvass and are working constructively with the Scottish and Welsh Governments. The system is great at identifying people who have lived in one location for a long time, but we want to reform it, through the use of databases and other information, so that it targets other communities that we also want on the electoral register. We want a modern system. Fundamentally, the system originated in the 19th century, when heads of household would register to vote on behalf of the whole household, but that does not reflect modern lifestyles. It also means that resources are not targeted to getting the most vulnerable on the roll.
It has been good to hear some of the other speeches. I cannot go through them in detail, but I certainly enjoyed the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), especially when they talked about picking and choosing results. It is interesting to see how referendums described as once in a generation or once in a lifetime, with people told, “You have the power in your hands to make a sovereign choice,” suddenly, a couple of years later, become a matter of, “Actually, we’d like to have a rethink, please, and it was only an opinion poll.” In fact, referendums are different: people are told that they will make the decision and it will be binding.
People know my views on the separation of the Union; I think it would be a hugely retrograde step. However, had that been the decision of the Scottish people in 2014, we would have had to vote through the legislation. We cannot pick and choose which result we respect.
The Cabinet Office conducts polling on a range of issues. There is no shortage of opinion polls on Scottish independence. I enjoyed seeing the separatists’ response to a recent poll: they complained that the poll was unfair because the question was about whether people wanted to remain in the United Kingdom. They thought that people being asked to remain in something was unfair, which is interesting, given their views on other topics. It was the Scottish National party itself that described the Scottish independence referendum as a once-in-a-generation event; now, only a few years later, the duration of a generation appears to have become extremely brief.
The key principle of our democracy is to give voters a choice. Just over three years ago, this Parliament gave voters a choice on whether this country would remain a member of the European Union. We had a strong debate and campaigns up and down the country. Not one person said, “Well, if you feel like voting, it’s next week, but it won’t make much of a difference.” No one said that; everyone said that whatever the decision, it would be implemented. Here we are, a few years later, having had a general election in which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office pointed out, more than 80% of voters voted for a party that said it would respect the referendum result, and it still has not been implemented. That is where we see the principle: we cannot pick and choose which votes we respect. That is especially true of those who voted for the legislation to hold a referendum, took part in the campaign, argued their case and then, almost from the day after, decided that respecting the result was an optional extra.
This Government will remain focused on our programme not just to deliver Brexit, but to defend our democracy overall. In part, that involves making sure that we protect the ballot by bringing in the long recommended system of voter identification, replacing an identity check that dates from the 19th century, when only a very small percentage of men could vote, with a modern system similar to ones used in many other democracies, and remarkably similar to the system used in Northern Ireland introduced by the Labour party. We will also seek to improve accessibility and make sure that more people can get to the polling station and cast their vote.
It is welcome that the Government tabled the motion. I expected that those who have spent most of the past two days attacking the Government and running down the Prime Minister, saying they had no great confidence in the Government, would try to test that confidence, but sadly they decided they did not want to do that. Normally in our democracy, the Opposition are itching to replace the Government. This must be one of the first times in history that the main Opposition have not tabled a motion of no confidence in the Government because they think they might win. It has been remarkable to see.
When a general election does come—an election we have already offered, which makes it interesting to hear about constituents being gagged when it is the other side who are blocking the election and we are the ones offering it—people had better consider who reflects their principles and their choices. When they do that, they will inevitably conclude that my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson is far more likely to deliver what they want than Jeremy Corbyn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate.