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Referendums - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:14 pm on 13th June 2019.

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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.