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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct 3:11 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, we are indeed fortunate to have listened in a single debate to two such distinguished maiden speeches, each delivered with great style, wit and charm. I am particularly pleased to follow my noble friend Lord Anderson and thus be the first to congratulate him. I confess to no surprise at the excellence of his speech: periodically during my years as a judge he used to come before us and make dazzling appearances; not invariably with success, but that was probably our fault and not his. He is described in the main reference book appraising members of the Bar as the—the, not a—leading EU public law expert, with,

“an incredible level of analysis and mastery of presentation … charismatic and charming”,


“a spectacular advocate”.

His huge contribution to public life, as the Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation for some years, until February last year, needs no emphasis from me. It is well summarised, surely, in the citation for his knighthood, awarded just a month ago in her Majesty’s Birthday Honours List:

“For services for national security and civil liberties”.

To advance both those twin imperatives, wrongly thought by some to be in conflict, is surely a singular achievement. This House is going to benefit immensely, I suggest, from the expertise and wise judgments of my noble friend Lord Anderson, and we greatly look forward to his future contributions to our debates.

Turning to the issue of the debate, referendums, I first join with others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on securing and so skilfully opening this debate. I should begin by confessing to having written a “Thunderer” article in the Times on this question in April, headed, “Britain needs one last referendum before we ban them”. A few days later I was confronted in a corridor by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, has already referred. He asked me if it really was me who had written this piece, and when I acknowledged that it was he said he hoped I realised how stupid it was. Did I recognise, for example, that 20 years ago the referendum held on both sides of the border in Ireland had been integral to the success of the Good Friday agreement? I was, I confess, rather shaken by that encounter and I have become rather less clear in my view that once, by a further referendum, we have, as I suggest we should, obtained the public’s view on whether, after all, we should Brexit, we should, as I said in the article,

“legislate to ensure that never again will our parliamentary representatives feel bound by a referendum to sacrifice their own mature judgment on the altar of public opinion”.

My more up-to-date views are these. First, referendums are, I suggest, by their very nature a risky and dangerous way of determining important political issues. I will not quote again the famous quotation from Margaret Thatcher, but they are a populist device, all too often ill-informed and dangerously repressive, and they ride roughshod over minority interests. Of course, all that was notoriously true in Nazi Germany, as has been observed. Nevertheless, with appropriate safeguards there may be occasions when, perhaps as a prelude to major constitutional change, a referendum is indeed appropriate. The Good Friday agreement is, I am inclined to accept, a good example of that. So too, I think, was the vote on Scottish independence and possibly—although here I put a particular emphasis on safeguards—the vote on membership of the EU.

By safeguards I am really talking about the various ways of protecting representative democracy from the obvious deficiencies that we can now see to have afflicted the 2016 EU referendum. That gave the public a deceptively binary choice, to be made by a bare majority and in circumstances where, although in strict legal theory the result was advisory only, politically it was really compelling, as has been acknowledged, at least to the extent of requiring an Article 50 notification to begin the Brexit process, although not, I would argue, to the extent of pre-empting any further, final referendum once the available terms become clear.

Possible future safeguards, obviously interrelated, for any future referendum would, I suggest, include the following. First, we should require more than a bare majority of those voting before giving effect to a vote for change. Secondly, we should spell out as precisely and truthfully as possible the actual likely consequences of a choice either way. As my noble friend Lord Wilson put it, any referendum should follow, not precede, a full public debate on the questions at issue. Thirdly, we should make it plain that the result of the referendum will be treated as advisory only. The weight of such advice, the respect in which it is held, would depend always on the clarity of the choice offered to the electorate, the extent of the majority, in both absolute and proportionate terms, and indeed the relevance of subsequent events.

Taking the present situation, surely there are here highly relevant subsequent events. They include, do they not, the increasing likelihood that leaving the EU will prove altogether more difficult, and possibly damaging, than many of those who voted for Brexit can possibly have supposed; the discovery of substantial breaches in electoral law by those campaigning for leaving; and of course the mere passage of the two years, which of itself has enfranchised many of the younger generation, who plainly wish to remain.

Three suggestions have been made. The suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, is that we simply slavishly follow the referendum, however imprecise may have been the decision then taken: it was to leave and we should do no more than follow that. Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, suggested that parliamentarians could properly now ignore the referendum utterly. I suggest that there is a real risk of forfeiting public trust in the political process if that course was taken. Thirdly, it is suggested that we should ask the public and respect their view on the deal now available by a further referendum, and that is the course that I support.