European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 6:15 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, it is rather difficult to stand out in a debate of 185 speakers, but I am perhaps almost unique in one aspect, in that I really do not have terribly strong views on Europe. I voted no in 1975, rather to the horror of Anthony Crosland, for whom I then worked. Even this time, I hummed and hawed a good bit before voting to remain, partly for fear of the unknown but more because I found the egregious lies told by the leave campaigners even more offensive than the egregious lies told by the remainers. So I am not passionate about Europe, but I am passionate about the British constitution and parliamentary sovereignty, and I am a particular opponent of the concept of binding referendums.

Last year, with the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, I arranged a series of seminars at St Anthony’s College, Oxford about aspects of direct democracy, including referendums. I therefore had to read up on the subject. I now know more than I would like to admit about referendums in Uruguay, which is the referendum capital of the universe as well as one of the most unequal countries on earth. The more I read, the more the concept of referendums seemed to me to be flawed. I was delighted in the last Parliament when I had the opportunity to block the private Member’s Bill providing for the referendum here by proposing the adjournment of the House. But it was a short-lived triumph, and this Government brought it back in.

Let me run through the arguments, not in my words but those of the rather remarkable 2009 book by James Fishkin, When the People Speak. He identified the following defects in referendums. First, the difficulty of motivating citizens to become informed. This is particularly so because each individual knows that his or her voice does not count for much and it is not therefore rational to spend their whole time investing in acquiring great knowledge.

Secondly, citizens hate to admit to being ill informed. A famous piece of American research showed that citizens had very strong views on the public affairs Act. In fact, save for in the minds of the researchers, there was no such Act.

Thirdly, the model of the individual rationally deciding his or her view is a distortion of what really happens in families and groups. For one thing, people have a strong inclination to discuss things with people whom they know agree with them. I do not suppose that many Members of this House know very many leavers, but they are 52% of the population. However, this inclination has got much worse in the age of Facebook and social media, which means that we try very hard—and usually successfully—never to read anything with which we are certain we are going to disagree.

Fourthly, and critically, the process is manipulated by politicians. It is not something that grows on its own—the timing of the initiative lies with the politicians. The decision to hold this referendum, now seen almost universally as a disastrous one, was taken without a thought to the national interest and solely in the partisan interests of the Prime Minister of the day and his party.

Today, we are in a position that defies belief. Four-fifths of the Members of the House of Commons are remainers and believe that this is a disaster for Britain, and yet four-fifths voted for this Bill for exit. It would have been better for Parliament to wait until negotiations were much further advanced and see what the temper of public opinion then was, then either hold a vote in Parliament or—fingers firmly clasped on the nose—hold a second referendum, which is the course being put before this House. However, we are not yet at the end of this tale. Negotiations will take place and they could be prolonged. There are scenes, indeed whole acts, to come before the fat lady sings. Will Brexit mean Brexit? We shall have to see.