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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:58 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Liberal Democrat 3:58 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, we have had a debate of enormously high quality from all speakers today—a very special occasion. I hope, therefore, that I shall not be the exception, because I share the joint feelings of remorse and dismay about what has happened in this country, and the way that we have lost our way as a result of it. I am not decrying the result of many millions of votes—far from it. I am a great believer in collective democracy of that kind, but we have lost our way as a result of what really was a mistake made by people who have now been described as all having voted for the same reasons, but who did so for all sorts of different reasons. This is a national tragedy of unrivalled proportions that fills me with great gloom as well as a determination to try to help, in a modest way, to rectify the huge mistake that this country made in 2016.

In the meantime, however, this House has gained two excellent new stars in the firmament. We thank the noble Lord, Lord Pickles—whom I have always admired and whose career I followed as much as I could from a distance when he was in the House of Commons as a distinguished Member and, finally, a Cabinet Minister—and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. We thank them very much for their history, their remarks, and their commitment to this new place, which I hope they will not find too eccentric. I was particularly grateful for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the breadth of his vision, and that important explanation about the European Court of Justice. I have always been an enthusiast for the European Union. I make no apology for that now and I have never reduced that view. In fact, it is now even more important to the health and welfare of all the member states than it ever was in the past.

We are lumbered in this country with the tragic misfortune of having five or six extreme, right-wing newspapers, owned by owners who, by the way, conveniently do not pay UK personal taxes and live as tax exiles, and who inflict on us long, boring editorials about the need for patriotism in Britain. For some reason, they have focused on anti-Europe as a main theme for their papers, which become comics and magazines rather than newspapers; they become propaganda sheets rather than genuine purveyors of news. It is the only European member state that has this tragedy and I regret it. I blame and feel bitter about the Murdoch experiment in this country, which did so much damage, and overlapped with other newspapers in the way that they dealt with things—we have to contend with that as well.

It is invidious in such an array of high-quality speeches to single any one out, but I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for his words of great constitutional wisdom. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, for what he said; I am tempted more and more to agree with him that the lack of a written constitution is a disadvantage rather than a plus point. We have always been proud of being different from the others in saying, “No, we don’t need a written constitution”. However, as the former Cabinet Secretary pointed out very clearly earlier in the debate, that has now become a mistake and a liability, and somehow we have to get through this.

As others have said, this is the first time that a referendum has been inflicted on the country without any particular rationalisation of why the country should vote either one way or another—except the emotional thing about staying in or leaving the European Union. It is totally different from the 1975 referendum. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. When we worked reluctantly with the Conservative Party on that, we disapproved of the referendum idea, but we all worked for a good result—there was one and the country settled down.

Why has this country remained the bad member of the European club? It is a club of friendly, sovereign countries working together, using majority voting sometimes and unanimity at other times, building up the European Union by treaty, and increasing the collective sovereignty of the whole body—as well as the individual sovereignty of the member states—whenever they make a collective decision. Most member states regard that as a good thing. Why has Britain been the unique exception to this and had this strange attitude that, somehow, it is them against us and they are doing us down? There is this hostility to the European Commission as well. It is one of the smallest civil services in world history, running on the instructions and requests of the European Parliament—which is democratically elected on an increasing turnout, and has more influence in the 50:50 system of legislation—the Council of Ministers and sovereign member states.

That is what we need to emphasise as we approach, I hope, the resolution of this ghastly crisis. The Government is in disarray and I am afraid the Prime Minister has made mistakes in handling this matter since the referendum result. I still wish her well in coping with it but, none the less, we have to deal with it and solve it, and restore the feelings and confidence of the people in our political system by restoring the sovereignty and strength of our parliamentary democracy.