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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for securing this debate. We have had three national referendums so far and quite a few regional ones, but none of them has led to the kind of controversy that has arisen from the last referendum. There are two factors to that: first, it dealt with one of the most important events in our history, which is unscrambling the arrangements that we have had in place for the last 42 years; and, secondly, the result was totally unexpected—at least, unexpected by those who called it. Therefore, there is a danger that our debate on the place of referendums in a democracy could be clouded by our views on that referendum. In order to avoid that, I want to decontextualise the debate and talk almost entirely about the place of referendums in a democracy, irrespective of what happened with the referendum on the EU.
Our political system is parliamentary democracy, not parliamentary sovereignty, but I think that the two are often confused. First, it is a parliamentary democracy in the sense that the power lies with the people, and it is articulated not directly by the people but through the representative institution—namely, Parliament. Therefore, it is a democracy first and it is parliamentary second. It is a parliamentary democracy because it is democracy as articulated through the instrumentality of Parliament. Therefore, as a parliamentary democracy, people remain sovereign. Popular sovereignty, as in any independent state, is a basic principle of a political system, and that is true of our system as well.
Secondly, to talk of parliamentary sovereignty implies that the monarch has no role, but you cannot call a Parliament unless the monarch calls it, and the monarch is not a part of Parliament.
Thirdly, Parliament is subject to certain conventions and procedures. Unless those procedures are met, it is not properly constituted and its deliberations and decisions do not count as laws. Therefore, Parliament is not sovereign, and it is misleading to say that it is. Given that we have a representative democracy, the question is: what is the role of a referendum?
Here, I take a slightly different view from that of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, because I am a keen supporter of referendums, provided that they meet certain conditions and are conducted in a certain way. Nearly 95% of parliamentary or representative democracies in the world practise referendums, and the fact that Hitler used them does not necessarily make them a weapon of dictatorship. For example, in a parliamentary democracy people might feel that Parliament does not represent them or that the political class, made up of different political parties, is already thinking in a certain way and acting on assumptions that people do not share, as I think happened in this case. What do people do in that situation? How do we elicit their views?
In that context, I think that people have a right to speak if they feel that the Parliament does not fully represent them. If they have a right to protest or demonstrate, they also have a right to express their views, and the only way they can do so is through a referendum. If people feel that they want to disown the political class, or if, on an issue of fundamental national importance, they feel that Parliament does not represent their views, how do people speak? They speak through protests and so on, or else through referendums. A referendum, with all its limitations, is a valuable constitutional device. It gives voice to people’s feelings and gives them a chance to express their views. It forces them to think, because a clear-cut issue is presented to them. It centres on a specific issue and is not won or lost by which political party is in power, as general elections are. More importantly, everyone feels engaged by it, and people feel committed to the decision that is taken because they have all thought about it individually and participated in it.
That referendums have a place in a parliamentary democracy is beyond doubt—as I said, we have already had three referendums so far. The important thing is to be clear about what the place of a referendum is: to constitutionalise it. It cannot just be an ad hoc convention by which a referendum takes place. It must be regularised and constitutionalised to give it a definite place in our constitutional system. This would mean laying down the conditions under which a referendum can be held and the manner in which it should be conducted so that information is provided to the people. It would indicate where a referendum is politically binding and where it is not, and where it should have a threshold or a supermajority provision. Once referendums are constitutionalised in this way, they would become an important part of our constitutional system and could be easily reconciled with any kind of parliamentary democracy that we happen to have.