Last week, I was speaking in the chamber on successive days. On Wednesday, I introduced motions to take note of two reports from the Constitution Committee on the legislative process and the following day spoke in a QSD (Question for Short Debate) on referendums and representative democracy. The latter debate was time limited. So many peers had signed up that backbench speakers only had three minutes each. I kept within time and my contribution was sufficiently short so that I can repeat it in full here. Lord Soley’s motion referred to referenda, but in his speech he referred throughout to referendums, so I did not need to take up time explaining why it is referendums and not referenda. Regular readers will know that referendum as a Latin gerund has no plural. The Latin gerundive referenda, meaning things to be referred, connotes a plurality of issues. Anyway, here is the speech. The same regular readers will also be familiar with some of the points, given more recent posts.
‘My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on raising this important issue. I wish to raise two problems with referendums.
The noble Lord raised the issue in the context of representative democracy. In a representative democracy, electors choose those who will govern on their behalf and can then hold them to account for their actions. The problem with a referendum is that there is no accountability. Electors cannot hold themselves to account for the outcome of a referendum. A referendum is thus, strictly speaking, an irresponsible act.
Once a decision is taken, it is left to others to implement. This leads to the second problem. We know how people vote in a referendum, as there is a formal, recorded outcome. We do not know definitively why they voted as they did. Politicians may think they know. The EU referendum is a case in point. We hear politicians claim that people did not vote for a hard or a soft Brexit, when what they mean is that they think electors voted in a way that aligns with their preference. They cannot prove it.
The result is that it leaves those who are responsible for acting on the outcome in a difficult, if not impossible, situation. I have previously likened the UK’s membership of the European Union to a marriage, a marriage of convenience, arranged late when the previous preferred relationship was not proving fruitful. Now electors have voted for a divorce. That is the starting point. How do you divide the assets? Who gets custody of the children? Those responsible for negotiating the terms of the divorce know definitively only that a divorce has been agreed.
I have previously expressed opposition to referendums on grounds of principle, but we are now faced with referendums as a part of our constitutional architecture. We cannot undo their use, but we need to think through how we handle them in future, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, indicated. We need to learn from not just the EU referendum but earlier ones as well. Will the Minister tell us what thought has been given to a generic referendums Bill? We need such a measure before we embark on another referendum.’