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Referendums - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:49 pm on 13th June 2019.

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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.