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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:46 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 3:46 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for initiating this debate. He talked about things being riddled with lies. The finances of the Leave campaign have just come to light, and there are people calling out for the whole thing to be rerun because of that. I congratulate my noble friend, whom I have known for many years, the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, on his excellent maiden speech; it was fantastic to hear his story. I also welcome the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, my noble friend on the Cross Benches. I am sure that both noble Lords will make a phenomenal contribution.

The whole idea of referenda is that they are simple yes/no questions. The interpretation by the Prime Minister and the Government is that the people voted to take back control of our laws, our borders and our money and that therefore we will leave the single market and the customs union and there will be no more ECJ—simple, cut-and-dried red lines. We have had only three UK-wide referenda in our history, including the one in 2016. The 1975 referendum on the European Community was not a vote to join; we had already joined in 1973. The referendum was on whether or not we should stay in. Similarly, the AV referendum in 2011 was for no change, based on the idea that, “You know what you have with our current system; this is what you’ll get if you go for AV”. Then of course there have been eight referenda on devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We have to remember the results of those other two UK-wide referenda: in 1975 it was 67.2%, a two-thirds majority, while in the 2011 AV referendum the result was 67.9%, another two-thirds majority. What were we doing—were we asleep when we passed the referendum Act and did not insist on a two-thirds majority threshold? I am not advocating a written constitution but in every country that has one, if you want to change that constitution there is invariably a two-thirds hurdle, and Brexit means changing the constitution in a huge way. Referenda should be used only in very rare circumstances. The Constitution Committee has given some examples, which I shall come to.

In 1945, the Labour leader Clement Attlee responded to Winston Churchill’s wanting to hold a referendum to extend the wartime coalition by saying:

“I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism”.

As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, Margaret Thatcher said they are,

“a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators”.

Then Margaret Thatcher spoke about this whole concept of representative government, where elected representatives—not delegates of their constituents but representatives—make decisions in the interests of their constituents and the country as a whole. We keep hearing about the 17.4 million but what about the 16.1 million people who voted to remain? That is a huge minority. That is the other point about the representative system of democracy: it protects minorities and ensures that their interests are taken into account. Here you have the tyranny of the majority on a one-off vote with a permanent effect.

Look at the effect that that has on MPs. If you look at the list of what the Daily Mail calls “mutineers”—the rebel MPs, the brave Nicky Morgans and Jonathan Djanoglys—you can see that many of them have constituencies that voted to leave, but they believe that it is in the best interests of the country to remain. So this has really challenged the whole concept of parliamentary democracy. To top it all, people were given four months to decide on an issue of such complexity—from February to June 2016. Then there is the asymmetric reversibility of referendums. There is a big difference between the consequences of voting for the status quo and a vote for independence or withdrawal. A leave vote is irreversible, whereas with a remain vote you can always come back again and have a vote to leave.

Here is the crux of it all: I am told that it is undemocratic to challenge the will of the people. No, no—it is very democratic. In a normal electoral cycle, every four or five years you make a decision and, if someone wins by 50.1%, they have won. Five years later, as Keynes said—and even David Davis says that a democracy cannot be a democracy unless you can change your mind—you can change your mind and you can vote them out and have something else, after the facts have changed. That is real democracy, not holding people to something permanent. On top of that, you have the youngsters who were not allowed to vote. The demographics have changed in these two years; there are two years’ worth of 16 and 17 year-olds who are now eligible to vote—and there will be more by the time we come to next year.

Things have changed, the facts have changed and our economy has changed. It was the fastest-growing economy in the western world two years ago; now Europe is growing faster than we are. The timing of the referendum was absolutely wrong; the migration crisis was at its peak and it frightened people. And then there is the reason for the referendum. Why did David Cameron do it? It was for the right wing of his party and for UKIP. Things have changed. Where is UKIP today?

My conclusion to this is that, in having a referendum, we should have had a threshold. Now we have the consequence where there are three options. The first is that we may have a hard Brexit, which will be unacceptable to this Parliament and the people of this country. Secondly, we could have a soft Brexit, with the EEA option, which is where we might end up—the least-worst option. That might be acceptable. The third option is that we might end up remaining. In my view, there is no option, and we are headed for something—call it a second referendum, call it referendum part 2 or the people’s vote. That is most likely to happen and is probably the most democratic solution to the conundrum that we have brought upon ourselves.