Brexit: Further Referendum

Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Excerpts
Thursday 17th January 2019

(5 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Portrait Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury (Con)
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My Lords, I also am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for having raised this issue. As he said, it is highly topical. Although the speeches today have been confined to the technical issues of a referendum, the reason why it is so topical is that the demands for a second referendum are growing. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said at the end of his speech that, in the discussions taking place between the Liberal leaders and the Prime Minister, the issue of a referendum is being talked about. Although he said that he did not want to raise the pros and cons of a second referendum himself, I certainly do.

Sometimes one’s predictions are completely wrong. Soon after the last referendum, when we saw how divisive the campaign had been—how toxic its effects and how complicated its repercussions—I thought that nobody of sound mind would ever again call for a second national referendum on anything. How wrong I was. The air is now thick with those demands. I very much hope the other place will not call for a second referendum, and I shall explain why in just two points.

My first point is that one of the fantastic things about this country is how we conduct general elections. Once every four or five years, all voters—whatever their background, employment, educational qualifications or income—can go to a polling station. Everybody is equal. On a Thursday they go to their local library, school or village hall, pick up a pencil stub on the end of a piece of string and simply put a cross on a piece of paper and shove it into a tin box. If the people have voted against the governing party, on the Friday the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Government all leave office without a drop of blood shed and without a scuffle in the street. The reason why it is done in that way and the reason why everybody accepts the result, even though more than half the voters may have voted against the new governing party, is that they know that the rules of the game have been observed. That is how you gain consent and acceptance for the result.

When we had the referendum in 2017—

Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Portrait Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury
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Thank you. When we had the referendum in 2016, everybody knew the result would be accepted. I have here just one example of what the late Lord Ashdown said on the eve of referendum day:

“I will forgive no one who does not respect the sovereign voice of the British people once it has spoken. Whether it is a majority of 1% or 20%”.

For all of us—in or out—when the British people have spoken, we do what they suggest. As Lord Ashdown said, “they command”.

If we have a second referendum, we will be invalidating the result of the first—we will be saying that it did not really count. In fact, by definition, we will also be invalidating the second and beginning to remove a cornerstone of confidence in our democratic system.

My second point is that, in a general election, the electorate delegate to politicians the responsibility for taking complicated decisions. In this referendum we have learned the problems that occur when politicians delegate to the public responsibility for taking a complicated decision. We ought to have realised that this is a very difficult thing to do. The people decided that they wanted to leave the European Union. If the public are now told by the politicians that they are so hopeless, so incompetent, so utterly useless that they have to ask the people to do the job that they should be doing, they will further undermine public confidence in them. We know what happens when that chasm widens. We see it today in many countries in Europe, and we saw it in pre-war Europe in the 1930s. I fear that if the politicians are yet again seen to be useless, saying to the public, “We were no good—we’ll have to hand it over to you again”, the chasm between politicians and the public will become ever wider.

Lord Tyler Portrait Lord Tyler
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I point out to the noble Lord that his two arguments are mutually contradictory. On the one hand he says that we should not respect the results of referenda, for reasons he has just given, and on the other he says that we have to respect that of the 2016 referendum.

Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Portrait Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury
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No; I said that we should accept the result of the referendum but that public confidence in the acceptance would be eroded. If we have a second referendum and the public believe that the politicians have said, “We don’t think you made the right decision; therefore, it’s invalid”, they will think, “Why is the second referendum more valid than the first?”