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Referendums - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 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.