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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:39 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Eames Lord Eames Crossbench 3:39 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for making this debate possible. A week ago the report of the independent commission on referendums, which has already been referred to, was published. When I was invited to be a member of the panel that produced that report, I went into those sessions with two human emotions. The first was that I came from a part of the United Kingdom where the people had spoken with such force in the Good Friday agreement referendum—and I also came from a part of the United Kingdom which had voted contrary, by a majority, to the rest of the United Kingdom on the Brexit issue. There I had two contrasting human pictures of the power, purpose and result of a referendum.

What did I find? I found that in all our discussions in that panel, which comprised politicians, the media, academics and people who had experience of referendums, and which resulted in 70—I say again: 70—recommendations in the report, what came through time and time again was that there is a human side to the dilemma of the referendum issue. Let me explain briefly what I mean. Having been Anglican Primate in Ireland through all those years, and being absolutely involved in the events that led up to the Good Friday agreement, to feel the people speak with the volume that they did when the possibilities and results of all the discussions were made known was not only an emotional endorsement but a constitutional endorsement of the way forward. You could not be in the position that I was in and not be totally overcome by the power of what was possible by having a referendum and giving the people the choice.

The difference between the two referendums was that the people knew what we were proposing as the way forward. There had been preparation, education, discussion and dialogue, and when the first referendum was held and the Good Friday agreement, or Belfast agreement as it is sometimes referred to, was put before the public, they were in a position to say, “This is what we want. This is the way we are prepared to go”—and there was no disillusionment as to the possible outcome. Moving on to the second referendum, there is a part of the United Kingdom that by a majority decides one way and finds that, when the whole picture becomes plain, it is in a minority. The democracy that we all believe in said, “Fair enough. Northern Ireland has expressed its view but the referendum says, ‘This is the view of the United Kingdom, so we go this way’”.

I cannot overemphasise the degree of confusion that exists in Northern Ireland today, not only about the border, and not only about the fact that so many of the consequences of Brexit will be felt by us first in the United Kingdom, but about the fact that we have learned two lessons about referendums from the examples that I have given. It was therefore no surprise to me that there were three consequential suggestions from the independent commission’s report:

“First, we should seek to ensure that referendums fit as well as possible into the rest of the process of democratic policy-making, so that there is effective preparation for any referendum and the choices available to voters are as clear as possible”.

The last speaker reminded us of the significance of that in the Scottish situation.

Secondly, we suggest that,

“referendum campaigns should be conducted in a way that is fair to both sides and enables voters to access the information that they want before deciding how to vote”.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, reminded us of the significance of that point. The third suggestion is that,

“the rules around referendums should be updated for the digital age, so that transparency is maximized and it is harder for the system to be abused”.

In making a plea from my own experience of the two contrasting consequences of the process of referendums, I suggest to the House that not only should this independent report be seriously considered but that the House should understand that there are different facets of how the population of the UK approach a referendum situation.