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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:38 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wilson of Dinton Lord Wilson of Dinton Crossbench 2:38 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I worry that we are all going to say the same thing. I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. What worries me is that there are strong forces at work, putting pressure on our unwritten constitution, and we do not have answers as to how to meet them. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on this timely debate. I am very pleased that we shall hear two maiden speeches, one from the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, who has relevant local government experience, and one from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who brings to these Benches his wealth of constitutional knowledge.

We are proud—are we not?—that our constitution is not written down. Everyone else has to write it down, but we can get through without that. Indeed, one of my predecessors as Cabinet Secretary once said in evidence to a Select Committee, “Oh we make it up as we go along”, and there is a sense in which that is true. I remember on one occasion I asserted as Cabinet Secretary a principle—it does not matter what it was—as a long-standing convention and got away with it. My staff pointed out to me later that there was no reference to it in any textbook or other document anywhere. I had invented a long-standing convention on the spot. That plastic quality of our constitution is in some ways a huge advantage. Although we talk about our constitution over the centuries, the reality is that it changes the whole time.

If we look at the last 40 years, we have had entry to the Common Market, which was a huge constitutional change. Local government used to be an independent tier of democracy, but over the last 30 or 40 years it has become an agent of central government in many areas. When Secretary of State, Mr Charles Clarke actually asserted that it was an agent of central Government. Nicholas Ridley predicted it before the poll tax came in. That is a big change. “Where are the riots in defence of local democracy?”, I asked local government when that was happening, and there was no answer.

Similarly, Mr Blair’s years were a period of extraordinary change. There was devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They were all different in concept and in content, but no one remarked on the inconsistency. We had reform of your Lordships’ House, freedom of information, the Human Rights Act and a whole raft of big change and yet nobody really noticed it. That is the truth: in this country no one is interested in the constitution and we tend to do big change as if we were under anaesthetic. We wake up decades later and wonder whether we meant to do what we did. It is happening with Europe at the moment, but devolution is another area. We tend to think about it only after it has happened and we should have thought about it beforehand.

Referendums have slipped in in this way because social pressures lead to big change in the constitution. Successive Governments, from time to time, have found it convenient to have referendums—not necessarily for the right reasons. We have similarly found—as Brexit illustrates—that we have had the referendum without paying much attention to the legislation for it and then we woke up and wondered what we meant by it. We must first look at the pressures that led to this demand for referendums. When I first entered the Civil Service, most informed policy debate took place within—though I have no evidence for this—5,000 to 10,000 informed MPs, civil servants, professionals and so forth in a small social space. But the social space is now tens of millions of people who have discovered that it is much more satisfying if they express themselves on social media rather than wait every five years to vote. That pressure is much bigger than the answer that referendums will provide.

We have to accept that referendums have come, but we should have a clear understanding that they should be the final step in a long process of democratic debate so that everyone is familiar with what comes forward and has had a chance to discuss it. It should be the final blessing on what has been done but no great shock, and everyone should be clear, with all the options, what will happen if they vote for them. We cannot have options put forward in a referendum where no one knows what they mean at the beginning of the process. The process is the wrong way round on Brexit. We should have the referendum only when we know what we are voting for. That is the fundamental point.

It is also nonsense to say that Parliament cannot overturn the democratic will of the people. Parliament is sovereign. We are a monarchy, not a republic. The Queen in Parliament is where sovereign power lies. I will not develop that because I am at the end of my speech, but the fundamental importance of accepting that Parliament is sovereign and that referendums can only be advisory is important, however difficult that is.

We are at the beginning of a process. Let us now look at the constitutional change that is coming and get it right before we implement it ever again. Governments should never offer an option in a referendum that they think would be damaging. How can you possibly defend, in the national interest, offering the public an option that you think will do them damage? But that is what happened with Brexit.