Lord Soley – ‘The Impact of The Increased Use of Referendums On The Functioning of Representative Democracy in The United Kingdom’

I have been increasingly concerned over the use of referendums in the United Kingdom. I do not like referendums. I think Britain functions much better under Edmund Burke’s representative democracy model, where MPs and Governments can be thrown out if the electorate so wish.

By and large, referendums do more harm than good. There are, of course, exceptions. If you have a position where 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 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.

Referendums can be incredibly divisive. The mess we are in on Brexit is a classic example. It was called on an issue that, frankly, had not been one of the top political issues in ​the United Kingdom.

One of the key lessons here is that if you do decide to have a referendum make sure you have a policy if you get a result that you did not want. David Cameron had no policy when he lost so, the EU was in a position to negotiate and we weren’t. That was the beginning of the current crisis.

I voted remain but, I was not surprised that ‘Leave’ won. The Brexiteers’ strapline “Take back control” is very powerful. I do not take the view that people who voted leave did so simply because they had not thought it through or because the arguments were weak or dishonest or because of immigration. There were many reasons and the strapline ‘Take back control’ went to the heart of what many British people felt about being able to make their own laws and sack their own Governments. The British had bought into the EU as a supermarket – not a super state.

One can argue the toss about what caused the majority ‘Leave’ vote, but one thing we cannot argue about is the fact that the BREXIT referendum has done enormous damage to this country, both here and overseas. It has damaged us politically and economically. Suddenly Britain which had always been seen as a stable political union looked confused and unstable.

Choosing between leaving or remaining in the EU is a very complex question. The question was simple but, it was on a very complex argument that had many different strands to it, which made it very difficult for people to decide. One neighbour said to me “I looked at all the arguments on both sides but couldn’t decide so I didn’t vote and thought I would leave it to the politicians as they knew more about it”.

My view remains that if MPs are able to debate an issue widely and come to a conclusion, the public can then make their views known with their votes in an election and by lobbying their MP’s.

There have been two referendums on Britain’s membership of the EU. In 1974 under Harold Wilson Government the referendum was on whether we should join what was then the European Community. Now we have had the 2016 referendum called by David Cameron.. They were both called because the political parties in government were divided and could not agree a policy.

What the second one did, which the first did not, was to aggravate the splits, so the divisions in the country now run deep between political parties, organisations, companies and families. Younger people tend to support ‘remain’ while the older generation tend to support ‘leave’. That is not a hard and fast rule, but there is a generational difference in voting patterns.

So, are we going to hold another referendum and if we do, will that finally settle the question? Not necessarily. I have tended to the view that we should not have another referendum, 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 cautionary note: I am by no means convinced that the answer we get will be very different. It might come to the same conclusion, or it might conclude that we should stay in perhaps by an equally small margin. If that happens, the divisions within the country remain. ​

Moving that argument forward to one that has concerned me deeply from the beginning is, what happens in Scotland? The Scottish independence referendum was well debated and there was a great deal of information about it. Everybody agreed that the debate was 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. The danger is that we go on having referendums without having a solution to the problems that led to them.

That is why I think representative democracy is better than referendums. And if anyone thinks I am saying that because I am afraid that Scotland would vote to break away from the UK, I have to say that in my judgement it is unlikely not least because of the experience of BREXIT. if coming out of the European Union has been a problem after just 40 years membership, think how much more difficult it will be if Scotland chooses to come out of the United Kingdom after 300 years and  where the bulk of its ‘exports’ will need go to the rest of the UK.

Imagine if that was somehow decided on a narrow majority either way. It would be a disastrous situation for Scotland and for the rest of the United Kingdom. We might argue now about a hard border between the UK and the EU so how about a hard border between the UK and Scotland! And that is just one of the obvious questions to ask after the example of BREXIT.

I think people do realise that leaving these transnational and international bodies is more complex than many nationalists argue. I always say that if you think nationalism is the answer to the worlds problems then you are asking the wrong question. Nationalism is on the rise and we see it here, in Europe and in the US. It is not a pretty sight!

I will not go into it now, but there is a much stronger case for the United Kingdom to develop a more federal structure. One of the interesting things about our history is that the UK adopted a federalist approach before modern federalism was invented. We called it the Act of Union and it allowed for different legal systems, church state relations and other differences but we have not developed that into a more coherent and modern federal system – something that I think we should give serious thought to.

The rest of this editorial will be published in print at a later date. ”The article above is my edited version based on a debate I initiated in the House of Lords on Thursday 13th June 2019. The debate can be read in full by going to the ‘House of Lords Hansard’ site and tracking back to the 13th June 2019. The debate was entitled, “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.” – Lord Clive Soley of Hammersmith.