Thursday night saw the latest twist in the never-ending saga of Brexit, with the government suffering a sensational defeat in the House of Commons on a key vote.
The Labour party joined with the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party to table an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill and, with the help of 11 Conservative rebels, it was passed, handing Theresa May a damaging loss. The Government had previously promised a “meaningful vote” for Parliament on the final Brexit deal that is agreed with the EU, but the new amendment now has legal force - and it must happen before any deal can be implemented in the UK.
Predictably, the right-wing press went bananas, with the Daily Mail, in particular, ‘naming and shaming’ the Tory rebels.
However, it’s just another sign of how hopelessly split Parliament and the country is, following the referendum back in June 2016 which unleashed the political chaos that has followed ever since.
And one eagle-eyed observer has found someone who argued forcefully, and eloquently, against the idea of holding referendums at all - or at least of holding them without people being fully aware of exactly what they were voting for.
Who could have uttered such a thing? Well, as it happens, this argument came from the mouth of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union - aka the man in charge of leading Brexit negotiations - David Davis MP.
Back in 2003, the then-Labour government were proposing the establishment of Elected Regional Assemblies, similar to that in London, in eight areas of the UK, with a Bill prepared to make provisions for referendums to be held to create them. Three initial referendums were planned; however, in the event, only one took place, but was overwhelmingly rejected by the public, so the idea was shelved.
On 26 November 2002, The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill was about to receive its second reading in Parliament - the first opportunity for it to be debated in the House.
Up rose David Davis who, as recorded in Hansard, stated the following:
“Let us deal with the major problem with the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister says the Bill will bring about more democracy, but, in a democracy, voters have to know what they are voting for. They need to know what the choice is, to use his own word. For that to happen, the proposition has to come before the vote, but with the Bill, it will be vote first, proposition afterwards. The Bill proposes that referendums should be held without voters knowing the structure or powers of the assemblies for which they are asked to vote. Even the Deputy Prime Minister would have a hard job to convince anyone that that is democratic. [Interruption.]
“There is a proper role for referendums in constitutional change, but only if done properly. If it is not done properly, it can be a dangerous tool. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is no longer in the Chamber, said that Clement Attlee—who is, I think, one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s heroes—famously described the referendum as the device of demagogues and dictators. We may not always go as far as he did, but what is certain is that pre-legislative referendums of the type the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing are the worst type of all.
“Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. So legislation should be debated by Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and then put to the electorate for the voters to judge.
“We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.”
Yes, what you read above is David Davis perfectly explaining the major flaws in the whole process of how the EU referendum was conducted. Which quotes are the most delicious? It really is hard to choose. Take your pick from:
- “They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested”
A major criticism of the referendum was the provable lies that ‘Leave’ were able to get away with saying, including the infamous ’£350 million a week for the NHS’ promise.
- “…Referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting.”
There was no description of exactly what Brexit would entail, and in the months since, the Tory party have picked one version - the hardest of hard Brexits - and stubbornly pursued it, resisting all efforts for Parliament to have a say and even persevering with their strategy after their election disaster earlier this year.
- “We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards.”
Yes, you couldn’t put it any clearer than that, could you?
- “If it is not done properly, it can be a dangerous tool.”
- “Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.”
Perhaps you should tell that to the Daily Mail, Mr Davis?