Lord Taverne: referendums vs parliamentary democracy?

London, 13 June 2017

Matteo Angioli: On 13th May 2017 you made a speech on the floor of the House of Lords on Brexit in which you said that we need to be careful on the way we go about referendums because of the view that the will of the people is sacrosanct. The referendum should not compromise, or even replace, parliamentary democracy. It’s a very delicate issue because parliamentary democracy, especially in a country like the UK, is the pillar of the State and of the rule of law. Could you explain this concept once again please?

Lord Taverne: Referendums have not played a major part in British politics in the past. A philosopher in the 18th century, Edmund Burke, said that MPs should not be not delegates who vote as they are instructed but representatives who have to exercise their own judgement after listening to the debate, weighing up the evidence and making up their minds and speaking up according to their beliefs. Whereas referendums are a form of popular soundings which sometimes change – the views of the people change Referendums are very different systems of government, favoured by the philosopher Rousseau, from the British tradition of Parliamentary government. in France. Rousseau believed that the will of the people should always prevail. The British tradition was to listen to the view of the people but we also have to consider minority rights, individual rights and the rule of law because sometimes the will of the people overrules the rule of law. If we look at history one finds that the referendum has been particularly favoured by autocrats and dictators. Mussolini loved referendums. Hitler always talked about the will of the people. Stalin represented the will of the people. Were they democrats? Certainly not. The will of the people can sometimes be a dangerous model for democracy. and in fact the first time It was constantly invoked by Robespierre, head of the Committee of Public Safety in France during the French Revolution. Indeed, we can show how the will of the people can be wrong The majority has often been wrong in British history. In 1938 Chamberlain was a hero when he came back from a meeting with Hitler in Munich and announced to great popular acclaim that he had brought peace in our time. and He agreed with Hitler to surrender Czechoslovakia for the sake of peace. Then in 1939 Hitler completed the occupation of invaded Czechoslovakia and soon war broke out. Again, In 1957 Eden led Britain and France to invade Suez. It was very popular. But within months Eden’s popularity was shattered. It was one of the most humiliating experiences in British history. And again, if you look at the Iraq war, Tony Blair, one of the most successful and popular British Prime ministers, lost his reputation completely because he backed George W. Bush in the Iraq war. So the people can be wrong.

But in that case the majority of the people were against the war.

Not to start with. First there were strong patriotic feeling supporting our armed forces. There were indeed strong demonstrations against, but it wasn’t until the whole thing turned sour because the occupation became so unpopular that Blair’s reputation was destroyed. And if one looks at Germany, which has been a very well governed country after the Second World War, in their federal constitution the power of the federal government to call for a referendum is prohibited, except in relation to the territorial changes between the Lander. They learned the lesson of Hitler. Having had that experience, they have become very suspicious of referendums and now we, in Britain, have adopted the referendum! I think that the decision by recent referendum decision fot Brexit, by a very narrow majority, was a decision which was based to some extent on lies and certainly not on a clear understanding of what the consequences of Brexit would be.

We were told that leaving the EU would make lots of money available from the European Union to finance the National Health Service. Well, in the negotiations we are likely to face a debt of something up to 100 billion euros! That’s the debt that we owe under legal obligations as a member of the EU for leaving the EU. We were also told that there would be millions of Turks flooding into Britain because Turkey was about to join the EU! There is no question of Turkey joining the EU in the near future, it’s a long distant dream that will hardly come about because Turkey is no longer a democracy. I’m very suspicious of the referendums, but this new fashion in Parliament is only being questioned,except by a few of us in the House of Lords.

In fact in Italy for example referendums don’t apply to international treaties or financial matters and they can only be called under abrogative terms. You can amend laws, but you can’t propose any. So it’s a different system, and of course, they are binding.

Very wise.

In UK, it wasn’t even binding, legally speaking, right?

Well, it wasn’t formally binding, but although it was called to be an advisory referendum, the Conservative party in their manifesto said that they would respect the result and put it into effect. So Conservative members of Parliament, most of whom voted in the referendum to remain, felt after the referendum that they were bound to vote in Parliament by the election result and to implement their manifesto. to implement the result. Now, I don’t think they were so bound. because no decision in a democracy can ever be irreversible. Only in a dictatorship are you not allowed to change your mind. It’s part of democracy that you can allow to make mistakes and change your mind. That is why democracies are more successful than dictatorships, because it’s very important that you are allowed to make mistakes and learn from experience.

The Nonviolent Radical Party is campaigning for the recognition of a principle by the UN: that of the Right to Know. Which is something that was discussed in 1948 when the UN Charter was drafted and then adopted, but member states didn’t want to insert a paragraph about it. After the Iraq war, which is a case that we have followed and analysed over the years with the radical party, we thought that this is a case that embodies what happens when the right to know is not upheld. And Brexit comes into play in the sense that, as you said before, maybe there wasn’t a proper, informed debate in this country.

No, there wasn’t.

Do you think that this is the case?

It’s very important, and that’s one of the disadvantages of the referendum: a question is asked but it wasn’t always a very clear question. It was: “are you going to leave or stay?”, but what would be the consequences of leaving? We know what the effects of staying are, we know where we are while we’re in the Union, but what is Brexit going to mean? And all we got from Theresa May was “Brexit means Brexit”, which is about as meaningful as to say “Breakfast means breakfast” – what’s on the menu? and in fact, as it turns out, it is a dog’s breakfast. And there was no checking of facts, the BBC was so scared of seeming pro-EU that if 99 economists said “this is going to be a disaster” and one economist said “no, it’s going to be a wonderful opportunity”, they had to have equal time for both. and When the pro Brexit people announced that there was going to be £350 million a week available for financing the NHS if we left the EU, there was no independent check which said: “this is absolute nonsense”. And again, when the Brexiteers said “there are tens of millions of Turks waiting to flood into Britain”, nobody said nonsense.

How was that possible?

Well, they denied it, but the people are so used to hearing “well on the one hand… and on the other hand, not really knowing what to think and whom to believe, that they believed to whatever agreed with their prejudices.

Do you think that the BBC has changed since the Iraq war?

No, I think what happened is they came under very strong fire from the Conservatives. Their charter was up for renewal, which establishes the right of the BBC to exist, under what conditions and how it’s financed, and the Conservatives started attacking the BBC, saying it is too left wing and too liberal. A good broadcasting organisation is always critical of the government, be it a Conservative or a Labour one. Good journalists should be sceptical. things. so They were so scared and But there was such a campaign by a very Conservative press against them, which was very much supported by the Right Wing of the Conservative party – which became more right wing as time went on – that the BBC was scared of appearing to be in favour of staying in the market that they leant over backwards to appear impartial. and Normally during elections they are regarded as being a trustworthy fact-checking organisation, and this time they were afraid to keep on denouncing lies told by the brexiteers.

What do you think of the Chilcot inquiry?

It was a very difficult inquiry, it took so long that in the end it didn’t have much effect, but I think it was a very good inquiry. and It did established that there was doubtful evidence at the time. But you couldn’t actually say that Blair lied. Personally, I think at the time it was clear that he was so convinced that Hussain had weapons of mass destruction – after all, Hussain himself claimed he had – that Blair disregarded any evidence that said that he hadn’t. Blair should have waited for the result of the inquiry, which established that there were no weapons of mass destruction. So the Chilcot inquiry established the facts, but it didn’t actually say that Blair was a liar. Blair was so convinced of it that he disregarded evidence to the contrary. Which is a common mistake human beings make: they like to look for evidence that confirms what they already believe.

Watch the video on the website of Radio Radicale 

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