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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:04 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Anderson of Ipswich Lord Anderson of Ipswich Crossbench 3:04 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to make my maiden speech in such an interesting and topical debate. I thank everybody who made my introduction to your Lordships’ House so enjoyable, including my supporters, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and those—in particular, Black Rod and her staff—who have started to explain to a rather slow student both the geography and the procedures of this astonishing and remarkable place.

I am proud to associate myself with the town where my wife and daughters were born and where I have lived for most of my adult life. Since Anglo-Saxon times, Ipswich has prospered from trade with Europe, frictionless or otherwise. It stands also for global Britain, having manufactured the first railway locomotives used in China. Another distinction was lost without too many regrets just last week: the record of Ipswich Town Football Club in providing the England team with each of the managers to have taken it to a World Cup semi-final.

But my origins lie far from East Anglia, in non-conformist Yorkshire and in Scotland: in a small business in Skipton run by my Yorkshire grandfather, William Mason, a motorcycle champion, who later filled the sermons he gave as a Methodist lay preacher with the geology, physics and astronomy he loved and knew so well; and in the Kinloch Anderson company, best known as a kilt maker in Edinburgh and now in Leith, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary in its sixth generation of family management.

My mother and father forsook their own family businesses for a new one—schoolteaching and, later, headmastering. Among their pupils at different schools in Scotland and England were the heir to the Throne and future Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers. I hope that that is a cause for congratulation, but in any event, with no prospects of equalling that achievement, I turned instead to the law. Since then I have scratched a living in a range of courts, as advocate and part-time judge, but I am most familiar with the courts of the European Union.

Opinions of course differ on whether the EU has contributed to the unprecedented peace and prosperity enjoyed in our continent over the past 70 years or merely coincided with it. But on almost any view, the European project constitutes the most advanced expression the world has yet seen of the international rule of law—a state of affairs to which British judges and lawyers have contributed with distinction, including my own mentors, the late Lord Slynn of Hadley, Sir David Edward and Mr David Vaughan QC, who sadly died earlier this year.

Change came for me in 2010, when I was invited to succeed the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in his remarkable work as Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. Since then, in that capacity and others, I have spent most of my time in the invigorating if sometimes treacherous waters of counterterrorism, counterextremism and investigatory powers. This has left me with a deep appreciation for those who work in intelligence and law enforcement to keep us safe, both in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and indeed abroad. We think of the three police officers whose great and exemplary bravery was recognised only today. I have appreciation for others as well, not least the British Muslims who have impressed me on so many occasions with their energy, generosity and desire to contribute fully to the life of this country, and finally for your Lordships’ House, whose real and beneficial influence on the law in these areas inspired me to fill out the application form to join your number.

That leads me to this debate. In translating the result of the recent referendum into a position that commands assent in Parliament, we seem to be in some difficulties. No doubt those difficulties have many causes, but our current predicament highlights for me two linked issues relating to the use of referendums in a parliamentary democracy. The first is the problems that are bound to arise when opinion in Parliament opposes major constitutional change and the majority of the people demands it. It was instructive to learn from the University College report, at paragraph 2.47, that the usual practice in other countries is for constitutional change to need the endorsement of Parliament before it is put to the people.

Secondly, it is surely at the least highly desirable that irreversible constitutional changes should be made not just on the say so of a bare majority of those who voted on a particular day but by the settled will of a clear majority of the electorate. That is all the more important when, in contrast to the usual practice in other countries, a referendum is the sole decision point for such a change.

To this end, mechanisms such as voter turnout thresholds and supermajorities—a familiar feature of corporate governance—are available. The Constitution Committee of this House recommended in 2010 that such safeguards should not be ruled out. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, make a similar point and was disappointed that the otherwise excellent University College report stopped short of endorsing these mechanisms, even in exceptional cases.

I am exhausting my ability to be uncontroversial and I have just exhausted my time as well. I thank noble Lords for their welcome and their indulgence.