Referendums - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 2:33 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 2:33 pm, 13th June 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the increased use of referendums on the functioning of representative democracy in the United Kingdom.

Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, before the start of the short debate, I remind noble Lords that Back-Bench speeches are limited to three minutes, so when three minutes is shown on the Clock you have gone on too long.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

My Lords, I seek to put this Question before the House on the use of referendums in the British constitution because it is a very important issue. I know that we are time-limited, as we have just been reminded. I will try to keep my remarks very tight.

I have been increasingly concerned over the use of referendums in the United Kingdom. I do not like referendums. I think we do much better under Edmund Burke’s representative democracy, where MPs and Governments can be thrown out if the electorate do not like them. Perhaps it is easy for me to say that because I was never thrown out, although the Minister did try on one or two occasions in my neighbouring area to organise that, just as I tried to organise his. It was a joint project.

By and large, referendums do more harm than good. There are, of course, exceptions. If you have a position where maybe you want to reinforce a constitutional change that has been widely discussed and then largely agreed it can make sense, but it is always worth reminding people, as many have, that dictators often use referendums to reinforce their position. Fortunately, we have not been in that position and I do not think we will be.

We know that the other problem with referendums, which really lies underneath my debate, is that they can be incredibly divisive. The mess we are in on Brexit is because a referendum was called on an issue that, frankly, had not been one of the top political issues in the United Kingdom until it was called. There was no alternative policy to put if the referendum was lost, which it was. Although I thought that we would vote remain and I did myself, I was not surprised that it was lost, because the Brexiteers’ strapline of “Take back control” is very powerful. I do not take the view that people who voted leave did so because they had not thought it through, because the arguments were weak or dishonest or because of immigration. It was much more basic: that strapline went to the heart of what many British people felt about being able to make their own laws and to sack their own Governments.

One can argue the toss about that, but one thing we cannot argue about is the fact that the Brexit referendum, three years ago now, has done enormous damage to this country, both in the United Kingdom and overseas. It has damaged us politically and economically. I noticed that the retiring Foreign Office official in Singapore made that point today about the damage it has done to us. The problem is that, even if it was discussed well—people will argue the toss about that—it is a very complex issue to decide in a referendum. Although you can argue that it was a simple question, it was on a very complex argument that had many different strands to it, which made it very difficult for people to decide. My view is, as I have said already, that if MPs are able to debate widely and come to a conclusion, the public make their views known if they do not like the outcome that MPs have come to, just as they have made their views very well known about the House of Commons and its behaviour over the last three years.

The other point that is very important in the context of the Brexit debate is that the two main referendums on this issue, in 1974 under the Harold Wilson Government about membership of the European Community and the more recent one on the European Union, were called not because there was a great demand for it in the country—there was a demand, but not a great one—but because the political parties in government were divided and could not deliver an outcome themselves. What the second one did, which the first did not, was aggravate the division, so the divisions in the country now run not just between political parties, organisations and companies but within families. You get arguments in families, particularly younger people tending to argue that we should stay in and the older generation tending to argue that we should come out. There are many variations of that and I am not claiming that it is a hard and fast rule, but it is an important point.

One of the things this indicates is that there is no sure-fire answer to the question, “Will we hold another one?” I have tended to the view that we should not, but I am driven to the position that, because of the mess we are in, we might have to hold one to get us out of it. But I would add this caution: I am by no means convinced that the answer you will get if you hold another referendum in the reasonably near future will be very different. It might come to the same conclusion, or conclude that we should stay in, or go back in, perhaps by an equally small margin. If that happens, the split in the United Kingdom stays.

Moving that argument forward to one that has concerned me deeply from the beginning of this, what happens in Scotland? The Scottish referendum was really well debated and there was a great deal of information. Everybody agreed that the debate was really good and the case for an independent Scotland was lost with a big majority. Did that mean that the argument went away? No, it did not. It has come right back and the same argument will happen again. With referendums such as this, in the way they have been called, the danger is that we go on having referendums without having a solution to the problems that led to them.

Again, I argue very strongly that we should not use referendums when we can use the representative democracy system, which is better. Without going into it, I would simply say that in the case of the United Kingdom, if you think that coming out of the European Union has been a problem, think of how much more difficult it will be if Scotland chooses to come out of the United Kingdom, to which about 80% of its exports go. Imagine if that was somehow decided on a narrow majority either way. It would be a disastrous situation for Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, so we should not think of going there. I will not go into it now, but there is a much stronger case for the United Kingdom to develop a more federal structure. In a way, we had that with the Acts of Union, but it was limited to courts, religion and one or two other issues. We could develop a modern federal system which might solve the problem rather better than referendums, which deliver an outcome which might be on a knife edge either way.

I commend the very good Library paper on this debate to Members. It pinpoints a number of the arguments raised by the Select Committees of both Houses and the independent review of referendums carried out in July last year. Those arguments are very strong. I do not wish to lay them out; they are in the excellent Library paper and I would rather draw people’s attention to that, so that people can look at it and decide what to do. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 lays down a number of conditions in which a referendum could take place, for example, on constitutional issues. One of the points made on a number of occasions was that it ought to be a clear issue where the argument would be very clear either way. That was one of the conclusions of the independent review of referendums.

What troubles me is that there has not been a significant discussion in all of this about whether there should always, or in most cases, have to be a certain percentage of the vote cast in order to make it a legitimate referendum. Think what happens if you have a referendum on an issue such as Scottish independence or Brexit and the numbers turning out are only 20% or 30% of the electorate. Think also what happens—this troubles me greatly—if there is not a clear majority. If there had been a clear majority with the EU referendum in 2016—by that, I mean a majority of 3 million or more, with 55% or 60% of the electorate voting either way—we would have far fewer problems than we have now. I hope the Constitution Committee will want to look at this again. If they do, I hope they will look at those questions of a minimum turnout and whether there should be a maximum.

This debate is very important. I am sorry about the time limits; I have attempted to be as brief as I can. We cannot leave this matter for long. We will have to return to it, so I make a plea for the British system to be used, with representative democracy and MPs and others being thrown out if they get it wrong. That seems to be a tried-and-tested procedure.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 2:44 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on raising this important issue. I wish to raise two problems with referendums.

The noble Lord raised the issue in the context of representative democracy. In a representative democracy, electors choose those who will govern on their behalf and can then hold them to account for their actions. The problem with a referendum is that there is no accountability. Electors cannot hold themselves to account for the outcome of a referendum. A referendum is thus, strictly speaking, an irresponsible act.

Once a decision is taken, it is left to others to implement. This leads to the second problem. We know how people vote in a referendum, as there is a formal, recorded outcome. We do not know definitively why they voted as they did. Politicians may think they know. The EU referendum is a case in point. We hear politicians claim that people did not vote for a hard or a soft Brexit, when what they mean is that they think electors voted in a way that aligns with their preference. They cannot prove it.

The result is that it leaves those who are responsible for acting on the outcome in a difficult, if not impossible, situation. I have previously likened the UK’s membership of the European Union to a marriage, a marriage of convenience, arranged late when the previous preferred relationship was not proving fruitful. Now electors have voted for a divorce. That is the starting point. How do you divide the assets? Who gets custody of the children? Those responsible for negotiating the terms of the divorce know definitively only that a divorce has been agreed.

I have previously expressed opposition to referendums on grounds of principle, but we are now faced with referendums as a part of our constitutional architecture. We cannot undo their use, but we need to think through how we handle them in future, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, indicated. We need to learn from not just the EU referendum but earlier ones as well. Will the Minister tell us what thought has been given to a generic referendums Bill? We need such a measure before we embark on another referendum.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 2:46 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I am not against referendums in principle. If you look at different systems of democracy around the world, some are excellent with referendums, and some are excellent without them. Arguably, two of the best-governed countries in Europe are Germany and Switzerland. Germany has a ban on referendums in its federal constitution, while Switzerland has referendums as a part of its everyday democracy.

Switzerland is arguably the most successful of all European countries in terms of peace and prosperity. It has had 306 referendums over the 170 years and that has not been a problem. Reconciling the Government and the governed, and direct and representative democracy, is a constant issue in democracy and Switzerland wrestles with those issues. However, it has managed to do so successfully.

Therefore, in my view, the issue is not one of principle. As a country, we are moving towards a midway point between Germany and Switzerland. We are making referendums a normal part of the machinery for amending our constitution but not a part of our ordinary system of government, in the way that Switzerland has. That is a perfectly defensible proposition in principle. The issue on which I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and my noble friend Lord Soley is that we need to take stock, in light of experience, to ensure that this is done successfully.

The three key elements which need to be in place, and which we need to learn from the European referendum, are: first, that referendums must be on clear and viable propositions; secondly, that they must be regulated properly; and, thirdly, that you must have a competent Government to respond to the referendum and seek, as competently as possible, to find a way forward thereafter. We are in this elongated car crash in respect of the EU referendum because there was no clear and defined proposition on the table; the referendum was terribly regulated, indeed barely regulated at all; and we have had the most incompetent Government in post-war British history seeking to wrestle with the referendum result.

My strong advice to the Government is that they become competent, regulate referendums properly and put only viable propositions before the people. I know the Minister will agree with all three of those propositions.

Photo of Lord Pendry Lord Pendry Labour 2:49 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I congratulate my colleague and noble friend Lord Soley on introducing this debate, but it is unfortunate that it is such a limited one. I have said in earlier debates on this issue that I am not a general supporter of referenda. Nevertheless, as a student I was fascinated by the views of Voltaire, Bentham, Locke and Hume, but in particular by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of direct democracy in the canton states—specifically, the notion that messages from the electorate should be communicated directly to the elected. This concept dimmed in its attractiveness, however, when one realised that, at the time of Rousseau’s writing, his ideas on democracy related to cities such as Bern with a population of 8,000, Basel with 12,000 and Geneva with 17,000—and they hardly relate to the kind of referendum that we had in 2016. Still, at university I was fortunate enough to attend seminars at All Souls by Sir Isaiah Berlin after his launch of Two Concepts of Liberty. As I result, I think I got a more rounded picture of the questions of sovereignty and democracy.

What has become clear to me in the three years following the 2016 referendum is that if a referendum is to be held, it must offer a choice between options that are clear, and it must be debated sufficiently and truthfully so that the electorate can make an informed decision. The 2016 referendum involved neither of these things, which has left us in a democratic crisis. The population was offered a binary choice on what was effectively an open-ended question, with the option to leave the EU given without stipulating in what manner. As a result, the information available to the electorate to inform their choice was deeply flawed, and in the past three years the whole fabric of what was on offer in 2016 has been shown to be a sham. An obvious example is of course Boris’s bus, but we will not go into that.

There was also talk in that campaign about the EU commissioners as faceless bureaucrats. This neglected to mention the positive role that UK commissioners have played in the Commission since 1973, including Lord Soames, Lord Jenkins, the noble Lords, Lord Tugendhat and Lord Patten, my noble friend Lord Kinnock, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and others. Does anyone really believe that they were working against the best interests of the people in this country?

Finally, it is clear that there needs to be another referendum to get us out of this mess. After all, democracy is the only way in which we can rectify this by democratic means. As my time is up, I say this: remember that there are 2 million youngsters who were not allowed to vote in the last referendum. But they can now and the future of this country is about them, not us.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 2:52 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, by chance we had the Swiss ambassador in front of our committee today to discuss various things. Switzerland indeed has frequent referendums, but with a very different system from ours. It has a devolved, federalist system of cantons, and it works very well; we have parliamentary representative democracy. I think that those who want referendums are generally misguided. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, who said that occasionally we may need them, but generally they are not at all a good idea—in fact, they are a shocking idea.

Luckily, I was not here in 2015 when the referendum Bill came forward, so I claim no responsibility—although I cannot quite remember whether I may have been able to vote on one amendment at the end. Those who ask for a second referendum must have taken leave of their senses. The poison that was injected into the body politic in 2016, and is still there, would be exacerbated yet further and more poison would be injected. Moreover, what would be the result? If it went the other way and people voted to remain, there would be uproar and accusations of “We was robbed” by those who voted to leave the first time round. Personally, I think it would be more likely to go the same way and that people would vote to leave again, which begs the question: what would the question be?

When I asked the noble Lord, Lord Newby, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in this House, what the question would be, answer came there none. I am afraid that the Liberal Democrats have form on this. In 2008, Mr Nick Clegg started a petition, saying,

“It’s time for a REAL REFERENDUM ON EUROPE … Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country’s future”.

Let the people decide, he said. Various Members who are currently here will remember that, on 26 February that year, some 50 Liberal Democrat MPs stormed out of the Commons in a frankly risible stunt to protest that they were not allowed to discuss having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will remember that the Liberal Democrat manifesto 2010 said they were,

“committed to an in-out referendum the next time”, there is “fundamental change”. In 2016, Sir Vince Cable, who I believe is still the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said:

“The public have voted … it’s seriously disrespectful—and politically utterly counter-productive—to say ‘Sorry guys, you got it wrong, you’ve got to try again’”.

Very unusually, I agree with what Nick said in 2008 about respecting the people’s decision. Very unusually, I agree with Vince Cable about respecting the people’s decision. Politics gets a very bad press, and probably the main reason is that the public do not believe that politicians tell the truth or are consistent. I will leave it at that and hope that the Liberal Democrat speaker—my former colleague in the Ministry of Defence, with whom I got on very well—will dwell seriously on those comments.

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 2:56 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, we have had 13 referendums so far; three were national and 10 regional. This means that referendums have become an accepted practice and anyone who wants one from now on cannot be denied it on the grounds that it is inconsistent with parliamentary democracy. It is an established constitutional fact. In addition, there are several good reasons why a referendum has a place in a democracy. In a liberal democracy, the political class tends to be self-contained and it is quite important that people should be able to speak directly, unmediated by any institution. In that sense, a referendum serves as a safety valve in a liberal democracy. It also vitalises parliamentary democracy because from time to time, when the people speak and assert their sovereignty, parliamentary institutions are made accountable.

My good friend the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said that the difficulty with a referendum is who the people are accountable to. In a parliamentary democracy, parliamentarians are accountable to the people, but who are the people accountable to? Ultimately, there is an absolute premise for that authority. If I said that they were accountable to themselves, because they have to pay the price for the decisions they make, that answer should be sufficient. As Aristotle said, the wearer knows where the shoe pinches, so there is no responsibility beyond the people’s experience.

Given that, in short, a referendum is a part of our political life, the question is: what can we do to regulate it, so that we know when to implement it and on what issues, how great a majority should be required on that issue and what the preconditions are for a sensible referendum? All our referendums so far, bar one, have been noncontroversial. The EU referendum of 2016 became controversial, partly because its outcome is inconsistent with what the liberals and parliamentarians expected. That kind of clash between Parliament and the people had not happened on any of the earlier referendums.

Now that it has become controversial, it is very important that we should think in terms of a constitutional convention. That convention cannot be drafted by Parliament because it would be seen as a party—Parliament deciding its own future. The convention has to be done by Parliament in collaboration with the people. That is the kind of convention that the Scots had. Here, it is important to bear a simple point in mind. With a referendum, you create a kind of political system in which the country is ruled by Parliament in collaboration with the people. Just as we have the collaboration of Parliament and the sovereign, governing the country together, the situation would be that Parliament and the people govern the country. The people would express their views through a referendum, and Parliament through other ways. A referendum can therefore never be entirely advisory, nor can it be totally binding. There are ways in which its position can be defined, but I should have thought that one way in which we can look at the outcome of a referendum is where it is neither binding nor entirely advisory.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 2:59 pm, 13th June 2019

I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Soley for introducing this debate. It is a great pity we have so little time. One of the reasons for that is that we do not organise business democratically in this House. Maybe others will have the guts to try to turn it over, and maybe we will use a form of referendum to determine what we should be talking about, our priorities, on which days we should speak on them and for how long. If we can do that for ourselves, we should then be prepared to trust the people out there and do it for them. Much wisdom was spoken by my noble friend Lord Parekh about what we need to do.

The first big change we should make for any future referendum comes back to the accountability of individuals; they should be required to show publicly how they voted, as we do here. That would be a major move towards getting people to start acting responsibly and playing a part. We have to move on this because, make no mistake, this was not the last referendum. There will be many more demands for other ways to be involved in parliamentary activities, and we should not be afraid of this.

Representative democracy itself is at risk, because so many MPs now act like delegates rather than the representatives they used to be. If they are doing that, they are not playing their former roles. Instead, we should be looking for a participative democracy, because we now have the technology, which is being used in many different ways and will develop even further. The public out there will use it. Millions vote every Saturday evening in entertainment programmes. We may not be involved, but they are doing it; they want their say.

Some 6 million people signed a petition to revoke Article 50 and we have totally ignored it, yet they were moved to do it. A host of changes are being made to how people participate in society and through social media. Parliamentarians and the parties are way behind. People should look at what Tony Blair said on this recently, as he is on the cusp of the coming change. If we do not move with it, we will be swept away by it. The people will take it and then we will have real trouble.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 3:01 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, said at the beginning of his brief speech. He said it is ridiculous that we have such a short time to debate such a major subject. It is important that we try to take a grip of the parliamentary timetable. The House will rise at about 6 pm today; there is no reason at all why we should not rise at 7 pm or 7.30 pm, so that people have a proper opportunity to discuss this most important subject. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for bringing it up.

I want to make one real point and it is this: referendums are inimical to representative democracy, but we have to accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend Lord Norton, said, that they are now part of our system. We need a referendum Bill, becoming a referendum Act, to regulate how they are held. We should first specify that there has to be a certain turnout for a referendum to be valid. Secondly, there has to be an agreed threshold before the referendum can take effect. We had that in 1979 with Scotland. When I came out of Lincoln Cathedral on the morning after the referendum in 2016, one of my fellow congregants said to me, “Even in my golf club we need a two-thirds majority to change the constitution”. We are all, individually and collectively, at fault for not doing that before the 2016 referendum. In any referendum Act, we should certainly do that.

There should be a final provision in such an Act to say that, when an issue has been decided, it cannot be brought before the people again for a specified time. That might be three, five or 10 years, but it would be ridiculous to create a situation in which you could have a referendum at the whim of a group of people. On that issue, I therefore agree with my noble friend Lord Robathan; that is why I have not supported a second referendum. It would be confusion worse confounded to have one. But I believe in parliamentary democracy. Parliament’s will should prevail. Where there is a referendum, it should be carefully determined and regulated. Most of the referenda that we have had in this country have, in effect, been to ratify a decision already taken in Parliament.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 3:04 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Soley. In my view, referenda are incompatible with our parliamentary democracy. I have always been against them. As other noble Lords have said, we have always associated referenda with Switzerland, which has an entirely different constitution from ours. The Swiss are the experts on them.

In 2018, the Swiss held 10 national referendums on a range of issues, including financial regulation and agricultural policy, so they are the real experts. In April, however, the Swiss supreme court took a historic step, overturning a nationwide referendum result and ordering a re-run, for the first time ever, on the basis that the information given to voters was insufficient. The court concluded:

“Given the tight outcome of the vote and the seriousness of the irregularities, it is possible that the result of the ballot would have been different”.

Even Switzerland, the country that relies more on referenda than any other, recognised that basic danger of irregularities—insufficient information and unreliable results. Natural justice says to put the question again.

Since our 2016 referendum, there has been massive evidence of wrongdoing in how the campaign was conducted. The official leave group has been fined by the Electoral Commission and is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. There have also been allegations of overspending and, of course, Russian involvement. The multiple falsehoods on which the leave campaign was based are now beyond doubt. There is no rational or democratic reason why a 52:48 vote, in these circumstances and on a constitutional issue, should be treated as the last word. The 1979 Scottish referendum had exactly the same result, 52% to 48%, but it was not binding or brought in because there was a threshold in that referendum. It was decided that the constitution could not be changed because of the threshold, yet it was probably less important than the EU referendum.

As I said, I am no fan of the use of referendums. They should be kept out of our constitution as far as possible. However, if there is to be another, more powers and sanctions should be given to the Electoral Commission to regulate them and ensure that they are conducted properly. I agree with noble Lords who have suggested there should be a Bill. If constitutional issues are at stake, thresholds should be put in place.

Finally, I recommend that we take account of the recommendations of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. It has provided a framework to ensure that referenda are consistent with our democratic system. It covers everything including the age of voters, funding, the role of the media and thresholds. If these guidelines are followed by the Electoral Commission, it would help to ensure that future referenda are carried out to the highest possible standard and in accordance with the law. To uphold our democratic principles, we need to learn from the disgraceful events of 2016 and ensure that they do not happen again.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat 3:07 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that I was never a fan of my party’s behaviour on referendums. They require a great deal of care. I entirely support what has been said about the need to define much more tightly how and in which circumstances referendums are used.

We are now in an awful mess. We have an institutionalised two-party system, in which both parties appear to be irrevocably split, so it does not work. We have a number of people saying that the referendum has given us the will of the people, but we are a representative democracy. We have had three years in which those who led the leave campaign—Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson—were given responsible positions to try to implement the will of the people, and have failed to. So we are stuck. What we need, therefore, is a debate on our constitution and a concern for how to educate our masters, in a society that has failed over generations to have political education in schools or any sense of civic responsibility, so that we understand that democracy is a dialogue in which the people and the political elite hold each other to account.

That leaves us all with the requirement to talk about how we understand the British constitution. As has often been said, our constitution requires government by good chaps. When we have a large number of people in our political elite who are not exactly good chaps—I make no reference to any particular contenders for the Conservative leadership—it becomes difficult to make the constitution work or to maintain its conventions when they are challenged. The fact that we are three years away from a referendum campaign which was fought on the principle of restoring parliamentary sovereignty and we now have contenders for the Conservative leadership outbidding each other in their determination to dissolve Parliament, or at least to suspend or prorogue us so that executive authority can be used to drive through a hard Brexit, demonstrates what a mess we are in.

Democracy is a dialogue between citizens and the political establishment. That requires responsible political leadership. It also requires checks and balances which we only have in a conventional form in Britain, unlike the written constitutions of the United States, France, Germany or other countries. It requires responsible parties, and that has clearly broken down. It requires the re-establishment of a relationship between the public and the political elite which re-establishes trust. We all understand how that has broken down. After this very short debate we need to address, publicly, the issues of how we reshape and re-explain the British constitution.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 3:11 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, suggested, in contrast to an election, where a political party stands on a manifesto and then has responsibility to implement it, with a referendum, there is no responsibility on those proposing change either to offer something viable—in the words of my noble friend Lord Adonis—or to take the reins afterwards and implement the decision. Yet the public expect a referendum to be implemented. But when proponents of change make unachievable promises, such as Boris Johnson’s,

“There will continue to be free trade”, after we leave, or David DavisUK-German deal including,

“free access for their cars … in exchange for a deal on everything else”, and then wash their hands of how to fulfil those promises, even when appointed to do so, we are in trouble.

Worse, Boris Johnson is now threatening not even to pay the money we owe—although he agreed to it when he was in Cabinet—and says that he would take us out on 31 October, deal or no deal, whatever the cost to our economy, to our citizens across the EU or, indeed, to peace in Northern Ireland. All this is on the excuse that the promises he made in 2016 were blessed by the public so must be honoured. That is a bad example of taking a decision by referendum. As the House has heard, these are highly complex, non-binary issues: not just whether to leave, but how to leave; whether to retain a competitive, non-protectionist economy based on environmental, worker and consumer protection or to move to an unrestrained, low-standard economy of the Trump variety. The referendum never discussed the “how” question, with the range of options, and the time needed to plan and adjust. That is partly the nature of the beast of a referendum, but it is partly due to the dishonesty—I have to use the word—of one side, which either misled the public and pretended it was easy or were too thoughtless or stupid to find out or care.

This particular referendum, on a complex economic, political, diplomatic and security issue, is testimony to the clash with our normal parliamentary democracy, where normally Governments are responsible for implementing the promises that they made in a general election. In this case, the costs to the economy are enormous. The uncertainty for business is costing billions. Reduced investment and preparations for no deal are costing hundreds of millions. Manufacturing representatives said today that a no-deal Brexit would be “commercial suicide”. The Cabinet has been warned that we are unprepared for a crash out. There is bewilderment among the CBI, BCC and Federation of Small Businesses at home and, as we have heard, Governments across the globe.

This referendum, and government incompetence, could lay waste to our economy. It is hardly a good advertisement for governing by referendum.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:14 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, my constituency neighbour in another place for many years, on securing this debate. He has chosen a highly topical subject, the tension between parliamentary democracy on the one hand and referendums on the other, a subject which will engage the attention of my noble friend Lord Norton’s politics students at Hull for generations to come. I commend the noble Lord’s opening speech and the contributions of all noble Lords who have taken part in this brief but high-quality debate.

To answer the question the noble Lord posed, I refreshed my memory of the two- and-a-half-hour debate held in this House on 19 July last year, not just to remind myself of my views on the matter but to pick out some of the key messages. I was struck by what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark said:

“Binary questions do not resolve complex matters of public policy”.—[Official Report, 19/7/18; col. 1352.]

My noble friend Lord Norton also spoke in that debate, using words which seem identical to those he used today:

“referendums are in conflict with responsible government … Decision-making through referendum is, strictly speaking, irresponsible”.—[Official Report, 19/7/18; col. 1356.]

I was struck by what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said. He contrasted the Good Friday referendum, when everyone knew exactly what was proposed, with the EU one, when they did not. The latter point was made today by the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Pendry. A point made in that debate, re-emphasised just now by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was that democracy is a conversation, a dialogue between Parliament and people, not an instruction from one to the other. Many noble Lords suggested then, as my noble friend Lord Cormack did today, that referendums should be a final step not the first step. If it is the first step, it should be advisory.

I do not know if any noble Lords listened, as I did, to Lord Sumption’s insightful Reith Lectures on law and the decline of politics. His assessment of the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is well worth quoting:

“A referendum is a device for bypassing the ordinary political process. It takes decision making out of the hands of politicians, whose interest is generally to accommodate the widest possible range of opinion, and places it in the hands of individual electors who have no reason to consider any opinion but their own”.

He went on to say that:

“A referendum obstructs compromise by producing a result in which 52% of voters feel entitled to speak for the whole nation and 48% don’t matter at all”, and that this was,

“the authentic language of totalitarianism”.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, mentioned the role of dictators in referendums.

I do not go as far as Lord Sumption and, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and many noble Lords have argued; I believe that there is a role for referendums in our democracy. What is crucial is the relationship between the two—a point just raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. It was interesting that half the speakers in today’s debate served in another place and are well able to judge and comment on this tension. I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, that there is a valid case for referendums on certain issues, for example on self-determination—whether people want to stay under the jurisdiction of this Parliament. A recent example of this includes the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, or, if it were ever called, a referendum in Northern Ireland on a united Ireland.

More generally, in a representative democracy it is important that citizens are engaged in politics. We rely on citizens to vote for their elected representatives in Parliament, Assemblies and councils. Referendums can take this engagement with citizens to a higher level. Citizens can directly vote on matters and see that their participation has real policy implications. They can see direct changes on issues that matter to them. Referendums can indicate public support for policy decisions and, if well-managed, can maintain the public’s faith in democracy. If less well-managed, they can have the opposite effect. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, mentioned the damage to our reputation overseas and to our cohesion domestically. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said that referendums can be a safety valve, but they can be the opposite if they are not well managed.

Turning to the 2016 EU referendum, the subject of the noble Lord’s speech, I note with interest that recent statistics show that public support for referendums has fallen from 76% before the 2016 referendum to 55% now, possibly because referendums, as the report from UCL published in July last year concluded,

“cannot replace the institutions of representative democracy. Citizens do not have the time or the resources to participate in all the policy decisions necessary for the functioning of a complex modern democracy”.

Many noble Lords have this afternoon displayed their discontent with referendums, and about the one in 2016. There have been accusations of “wrongdoing”, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and that the referendum was “ill-informed” or “irresponsible”. My own view is that there was in fact a case for the EU referendum and I believe the result was valid.

This important constitutional issue of our membership of the EU has divided our two main parties and our nation for 45 years and, in the two most recent elections for the European Parliament, the party that won wanted us to leave. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, pointed out, none of the major parties at general elections have provided an outlet for that view, so seeking to resolve it through a referendum seemed eminently sensible, and Parliament agreed. The European Union Referendum Act 2015 was fully debated and approved by both the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House. There was a high level of engagement from the public, with a 72% turnout. My criticism of David Cameron is not that he called the referendum, but that he did not win it. As a foot soldier, I accept some responsibility for the outcome, but I say in passing that under any other Labour leader the result might have been different.

What has subsequently happened has shown the risk of running referendums alongside parliamentary democracy, as Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, pointed out, has so far been unable to convert the referendum result into actually leaving the EU. A majority remain Parliament finds itself at odds with a predominantly leave country, possibly because, as my noble friend Lord Norton implied, there is a debate about why exactly people voted as they did. On this impasse, I refer again to the report from UCL’s independent commission on referendums. This highlights that referendums must be used as supplementary tools alongside the institutions of representative democracy; they should not bypass or replace the democratic institutions that exist in our representative democracy.

That committee went on to argue, as many noble Lords have argued this afternoon, that there must be appropriate time for debate and political discourse, and the questions put to the public should be carefully considered. The UCL report suggests, as noble Lords have done, that referendums should be held at the end of the decision-making process, so that eligible voters can choose between developed alternatives. This seems to me a sensible ideal, even if it is not always possible to achieve and certainly did not happen with the EU referendum.

I was interested to read the conclusions of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the other place:

“Confusion as to the possible consequences of a referendum result serves only to heighten the potential tensions between referendums and representative democracy and risks increasing the public’s disenchantment with politics”.

I think that provides a useful one-sentence response to the question posed by the noble Lord at the beginning of our debate.

A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Soley, asked why a supermajority was not required in the EU referendum. The referendum did not include a threshold requirement or a supermajority requirement and although I was not in the House at the time, I understand that no amendments for such requirements were debated during the passage of the Bill. That was in keeping with previous referendums in the UK, the only exception being the 1979 referendum on devolution. Without going into great detail, I draw the attention of the House to the UCL’s report on referendums, which set out in more detail why such thresholds are not necessarily a good idea.

A number of noble Lords asked for a referendum Bill before we embark on any further referendums. There will of course be an opportunity to scrutinise a referendum Bill before any future referendum, because any referendum requires a new Act of Parliament. This Government have made it clear that they have no plans for any more referendums—though the policy of the Opposition on that subject remains as yet unclear—but I say in conclusion that should any future Government think of holding a referendum, today’s debate will have provided food for thought before they finally push the button.