Bishop of Southwark – challenges to parliamentary democracy posed by referendums

On 19th July Lord Higgins led a debate on the motion, “That this House takes note of the impact on parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom of the use of referendums.” The Bishop of Southwark, Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on securing the debate, which, as others have observed, is timely. A man who secured a silver medal in the 440 yards relay in the Commonwealth Games in 1950 knows how to pace himself. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, on his maiden speech with all its fascinating revelations. I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, shortly.

Of course, I acknowledge that the United Kingdom cherishes a parliamentary democracy. That key point, and all that flows from it, has been powerfully argued by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. It is the genius of this country that over time we have made use of ancient yet enduring institutions and constantly evolving constitutional practices to serve a thoroughly modern society. The Church was present in the counsels that predated Parliament and the estates that first gathered here. It has witnessed both the supremacy of the other place and the extension of the franchise. We are being looked down upon in stone effigy by those who witnessed Magna Carta, including two archbishops.

Parliamentarians have, at certain key moments, embodied the sense of the nation and articulated what needed to be said on local and national issues—as, indeed, on matters of global importance. We have sought and seek to legislate for the better welfare of our fellow citizens and we do so with our time, expertise and wisdom. We do so in this House upon our honour. Our role is to scrutinise, challenge, debate, consider and legislate. At the end, we offer our labours as a contribution to the parliamentary process and to Her Majesty for her consent.

Referenda are historically alien to the British constitution. However, the introduction of plebiscites into the British system is now a development, albeit regrettable, that we have to live with. We have legislation specifically on national referenda in the 2000 Act, such are their permanence.

It is worth considering why this has occurred. I identify at least two reasons. One is to determine intractable issues that people will not otherwise allow a Parliament to determine. In 1975 and 2016 it was, at least in part, to manage party divisions over our relationship with the key European bloc and bring certainty to a long-running issue. It came into play in the referendums on Scottish independence in 2014 and on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1978 and 1997. As in some other countries, we now allow for key ​constitutional issues to be determined in referenda. The voting system referendum of 2011 was another example.

The second reason is not unrelated to the first. It is an understanding that, since democracy is the participation of the citizen in the politics of the community, referenda offer the widest and most direct form of such participation. They carry with them the sense of final arbitration of block votes on binary questions. The problem with binary question voting in a national ballot is that it invites the voting population to do what parliamentarians undertake in the context of debate and continuing process—mastering a complex topic. For referenda to continue—there is no sign of them going away—there needs to be on each occasion a mechanism, such as a Joint Committee or commission, responsible for public preparation on the issues. While there was extensive prior coverage lasting years and high-quality debate before the 1975 referendum, neither was evident in 2016.

Binary questions do not resolve complex matters of public policy, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear in this House on 7 March last year, during the Report stage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. A referendum acts like a surgeon’s knife in amputation at a static point in time. By contrast, parliamentary deliberation evolves after each general election, facing each matter before it in scrutiny, argument and debate. A simple question determined by a slim majority leaves virtually half our nation permanently without a voice in the matter, in a way that a Parliament never does.

As is said in Proverbs, chapter 21, verse 5:

“The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want”.

For both Houses of Parliament, the continued option of referenda poses a challenge. We need urgently to recover a sense with the public that we address the really important matters and do not shy from or endlessly postpone them. If we can find the means to communicate the importance of public policy and something of its texture in the media, the appetite for this innovation in the British constitution may wane. I sincerely hope that it does.

We are contending with matters that are the most momentous that this country has faced, certainly since 1940. There are those who, at the very time we need the sort of deliberation I have expounded, have sought to close down debate in this place in a plea that all is decided in a referendum and that the rest is for the Executive to determine. Such an approach is injurious to parliamentary democracy as evolved in this nation and I hope that we in this Chamber and in the other place will resist this misguided attempt.


Lord Young of Cookham (Con)….the argument against referendums was well put by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark who brought the good book into play to reinforce his argument.

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