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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:52 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 3:52 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. There has been a subtext to every speech in this very remarkable debate, introduced so splendidly by my noble friend Lord Higgins. The subtext has been, “I wouldn’t have started from here”. I have to say to myself as well as to everybody else that we are indeed where we are.

We have had two very fine maiden speeches in this debate. My noble friend Lord Pickles made a gently but wonderfully idiosyncratic speech that we will all remember. It was a potted autobiography, and all the better for that. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, made a very fine speech. I am just sorry that he was not appropriately dressed for it, in view of the fact that he comes from a family of kilt makers.

This is an incredibly serious matter. I was very taken by the reference to the Netherlands by my noble friend Lord Higgins. I would love to have a Bill before your Lordships’ House stating that there will not be any more referendums. But, again, they are now part of our system. We could of course have one that would have one question: do you wish to continue to live in a parliamentary democracy? I believe that a parliamentary representative democracy is really inimical to the concept of a referendum, but we have to accept that there will probably be other ones.

Let us remember that it is our duty to learn from our mistakes. We made mistakes when we passed that Act without inserting requirements for a specific majority, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, suggested we might have done—but we did not. The lesson that has come out of this debate more clearly than any other is that a referendum should be to ratify what Parliament has decided. That is in fact what the referendum of 1975 did. I took part in it; it was an intelligent debate. I had Labour Members of Parliament, colleagues, staying in my own home and taking part with me in meetings in my own constituency. Everybody knew what it was about. We had entered what was then the European Economic Community and were deciding whether to endorse that particular decision. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has just reminded us, we endorsed it with more than a two-thirds majority. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, also talked about Northern Ireland but, again, that was endorsing—ratifying—something that had in effect already been decided.

Any referendum Act—and there is a need for one—should have two principal objectives. First, the referendum should be to ratify what Parliament has decided and, secondly, as with those countries that have a written constitution—to which the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and others referred—there should be a threshold, as we had in 1979, and a percentage. No referendum should ever be judged as an instruction from the people unless there is a very large majority indeed. The majority of 2016 was something of a generational majority; my grandchildren were in tears because of what my generation had done to them. We cannot rerun it. I am not one of those who will advocate a second referendum, but I really do recommend that we heed the lessons of our recent past.

I have always been a great student of the English Civil War. I have known the facts for a very long time, since I taught them as a schoolmaster. In the last few months, I have come to understand the emotions. Parties have been torn apart and friends have said things to friends that a friend should never say. I really do believe that that is because the result was so close. We have to learn these lessons. I suspect that Mr Cameron, who chose the wrong time for the referendum, when people were confusing migration and immigration—remember that dreadful Nigel Farage poster of the Syrian refugees—made a promise not thinking that he would have to deliver. I think he still felt that he would be to some degree dependent upon Liberal Democrat votes, which was not something that would lead to a referendum.

As I said, we are where we are. We have got to make sure that such a division never occurs in our country again. In the next few months, we have to try to heal the wounds—which are quite deep—that have already been caused.