EU Membership: Second Referendum

Jon Cruddas Excerpts
Monday 3rd December 2018

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Exiting the European Union
Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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3 Dec 2018, 4:44 p.m.

I am disappointed by the number of people who have turned up to the debate. I came to listen to it because I spoke in the debate on the counter-proposition—that there should be a second referendum—two weeks ago. This is one of the most important constitutional issues of our time, so I expected more right hon. and hon. Members to be present. However, I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to contribute. I will not repeat the arguments of the previous debate but, I hope, make one or two new points.

I am sure you remember, Mr Hollobone, as a learned person, that in 1953, after the uprising in East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht said ironically that the regime should dismiss the people and appoint a new one. It seems to me that those people who now argue for a second referendum are saying that in 2016 the electorate got it wrong. They make a number of supporting statements, such as, “The electorate didn’t understand.” I think the electorate did understand what was a very simple proposition. Worse than that to my mind is the statement that the electorate were motivated by anger, disillusionment and alienation because they live in poorer regions of the country. That all boils down to the same point: that people in Hartlepool, Wales, the north of England, the south-west of England, the midlands—all the areas that voted to leave—dealt not with the question before them but with their own internal situation.

My experience was quite the reverse. I talked to people while I was out and about on the day of the referendum, and they had a very simple and direct definition of democracy and sovereignty. A couple of them said something like, “We should make our own laws, shouldn’t we?” That is a pretty simple question and a pretty fundamental way of defining democracy and sovereignty, which are at the core of this issue. I therefore dismiss that suggestion by people who argue for a second referendum.

The establishment took one in the guts on this. They did not expect to lose the referendum, so they denigrated people who voted to leave as a way of not dealing with the fundamental arguments. Those arguments were about democracy and sovereignty—the right of an electorate to dismiss the people who raise taxes and make laws. The EU, since its inception, has been a challenge to that process.

I do not really want to repeat the arguments that have been made, but some are worth addressing in detail. There are practical problems. If there were agreement in both Houses that there should be a second referendum—I do not think there is—how long would it take to pass the necessary law? It is not obvious what the question, or questions, would be. Would it be about the 575-page document we have been presented with, which I suspect even lawyers would find difficult to decipher? Would we have another in/out vote? Or would we vote on all three things? I have heard hon. Friends argue on television and radio that there should be a three-point question. They never seem to have the answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully): what happens if the electorate vote a third, a third and a third, or if there are other contradictions in the result?

It seems to me that because of those complicated issues, the timetable for getting a second referendum through both Houses would be long. It is not obvious what the decision would be, and interpreting it would be difficult. I am sure the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), will correct me if I am wrong, but the debate on the Scottish referendum took more than two years. He will not have been happy with the result, but a thoroughgoing debate was had in Scotland on its future.

We had just over a year to debate the 2016 referendum, which came after the 2015 general election when a significant majority of people voted to have a referendum, and still people claimed that there was not sufficient time to hold a referendum. There would be the time taken on the complicated issues of what questions the referendum would ask and what it would be about, and then there would be the time to have a thorough debate. If one of the problems with the first referendum was that the debate was not thorough and detailed enough, one would want at least as long to debate a more complicated question.

Those are practical problems, but there is a deep problem of principle with the belief—this applies to Plaid Cymru, the SNP and others—that referendums are the solution to a problem. If this referendum result is not honoured, what will happen with the honouring of any future referendum results? It calls into question whether Parliament means it when it says, “This is for the people to decide, even by a majority of one.” I can give quotes from Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem spokespeople who said that. That was the decision of the House of Commons and it was passed by a large majority.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
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3 Dec 2018, 4:51 p.m.

I want to go back to what the hon. Gentleman talked about earlier, given the points he is making now. He said that the initial vote was not driven by anger or alienation. Will he comment on the consequences of shoehorning in a second referendum? Would it not incite greater anger and alienation of the kind that we did not necessarily see in the first referendum?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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3 Dec 2018, 4:53 p.m.

There has been an outpouring of anger by the establishment—those whom we on the left used to call the ruling class—who suddenly found that they were not ruling anymore. They have gone from being completely nonplussed and surprised, to being angry. The electorate were told that they had a decision to make, but they are now being told, “We didn’t like the decision you made; think again and do as you’re told this time.” I realise that that is what the EU has done on a number of occasions. The EU has ignored referendums in Greece and France, and it has made the Irish vote on two occasions on different treaties. That fits in with the EU, but I think people in this country would be angry if that happened.

Opinion polls are all over the place; until there is a campaign on whatever the question is, nobody knows what decision will be made. I think the people of the United Kingdom in total are a rather cussed lot and would not like to be told that they have got it wrong and to do it again. Their initial response would be anger and it would not resolve anything. Fundamentally, those people who say that holding a second referendum is a solution are wrong. It would not solve bitterness and it would not necessarily solve the constitutional problems faced by the Government. It really would not solve anything.

Importantly, we should not follow Brecht’s ironic suggestion, which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, to change the electorate or tell them to do it again. This is the responsibility of Government. The Government said that they would implement the result. They have come back with a deal, about which there are different views. I find the backstop, which I believe our civil service would like us to be locked into forever because it effectively locks us into the customs union, is anathema. It means that we cannot do our own trade deals. Nobody can tell me what we would be getting for £39 billion. I know what the Minister’s position has been over the years, but it is not clear that the £39 billion is anything but a blackmail payment to the EU. It is about the same amount as we would have paid had we had a seat around the table and had we still been a member of the EU. I have been told by Ministers on a number of occasions that there is no legal basis and it is not an obligation to pay that money. There are some smaller obligations. Not only is there a backstop and a lack of trade deals, but we will also be paying a fortune.

I was a member of the board of Vote Leave and one of the biggest criticisms of the leave campaign was that the amount on the side of the bus was exaggerated and was a distortion, because it used the gross payment to the EU and not the net. The figure that the Government are suggesting that we pay for nothing, which will not go into children’s services, social services, protection of the elderly or the NHS, is £60 million per constituency. For what? £60 million per constituency is £1,100 per individual member of the electorate in this country.

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk on this matter again. I do not believe that a second referendum would resolve anything. It is impractical, it is not principled, and I do not think it should be given the time of day to be debated. It should be thrown out.

Break in Debate

John Grogan
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3 Dec 2018, 5:01 p.m.

I am sorry. I meant the Minister—I was looking at him. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), probably does not know precisely what is going on in the Government, but I am sure the Minister, to whom I apologise, will be in the know; the shadow Minister is nodding his head.

I have great respect for the Minister. He will be one of the few people who know exactly what plan B is—among a number of possible ones. I understand that the Trade Bill is coming back the day after the meaningful vote and some people say the Government will adopt the Labour party policy of pretty well staying in the customs union, and possibly a close relationship with the single market. If not, a referendum is one of the only options open to Her Majesty’s Government. There are practical difficulties, of course, but if there was a request to the European Union from Her Majesty’s Ministers to hold a further referendum and remain was to be one of the options, I think we would undoubtedly get the time necessary.

Incidentally, unlike some, I think that if there was a second referendum there would have to be three main options. One would have to be no deal. My constituency was split, as many were—about 53% to come out and roughly 47% to stay in; the different wards ranged from 63% to 32% for those who wanted to stay in, so it is a split constituency. People should be able to say, “No deal”. It would be a disaster for our nation and economy, but it should be one option. How do we do it? We ask two questions.

There is a precedent in Scotland. I understand that the Scottish referendum had two questions—about whether people wanted devolution, and about whether they wanted the Parliament to have tax-raising powers. The second Brexit referendum would obviously be a two-question referendum—possibly, “Do you want to stay in or come out?” and, if people wanted to come out, “Is it the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister or not?”—the deal or no deal, in effect. It could be done and would be a way to bring things to a conclusion if there were a complete impasse in Parliament.

We have asked the people once. If Parliament cannot come to a clear conclusion, the second referendum must be something we consider. Mr Speaker will, I think, ensure that there is a vote on it, if the deal goes down. The crucial vote will not be on the amendments to the meaningful vote, but afterwards. If Her Majesty’s Government do not agree that that is their plan B, they will quickly have to come back with proposals on the customs union and single market, to try to get on side a broad range of people in this Parliament who would favour a close relationship with both those institutions.

The one thing that could persuade me to vote for the deal is the situation in Ireland. I shall not vote for the deal next Tuesday, but the one thing I am torn about is the fact that many people—other than the Democratic Unionist party—are writing to me. The Labour party’s sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, and business and trade unions in Northern Ireland, say that they want to support the deal because of the consequences in Ireland.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton on the issue. The Prime Minister is to be commended on the backstop arrangements. Ironically, they would put Northern Ireland in the best position economically of any part of the United Kingdom, because it would be linked to the single markets of the United Kingdom and of the European Union.

Whatever decision we take, we must be cognisant of the fact that possibly the greatest political achievement of my lifetime, which I have observed and in which I was a bit-part player, is peace in Ireland. Whatever the House does in the coming weeks, it must not by any decision jeopardise that.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
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3 Dec 2018, 5:06 p.m.

I, too, was just going to come and listen to the debate this afternoon, but I find I have the opportunity to speak for two and a half hours. I have a couple of points to make, given that some I would have made have already been covered.

As to what my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) said about favouring a second referendum including no Brexit, I cast my mind back to a conversation I had with a leading member of my party over lunch last week. I asked him how a second referendum would work, and he said it would be pretty simple. We would have the deal and the case for staying in—the default prior to the last referendum. I simply said, “Okay, I can see where you are coming from. What would be the consequences in terms of the levels of social disquiet and anger that would develop?”

It seems to me that anyone who argues for a second referendum on the basis of the deal versus staying in has a responsibility to provide a risk assessment of the consequences of that argument—because there would be many, in communities such as mine. People would feel they had, in a sense, been humiliated, if their contribution in an earlier referendum, and the passion and energy released in that process, could be parked. I fear how that would play out, and how it would affect the texture of the country.

I will lay my cards on the table. My constituency voted 70:30 to leave, although it is quite complicated to ascertain the precise figures, as we straddle two different authorities. I voted remain, so my powers of persuasion were very effective in that debate. What has worried me throughout is the fact that the conversation so far has been dominated by technical issues about our departure—the 530-page document, and so on—at the expense of the sentiments, concerns and views of the people, often quite viscerally presented in the course of the referendum. They seem to have been marginal in the conversation since then. To date, the righteous anger has appeared to be primarily on the hard Brexit side of the debate, but a bit more righteous anger now seems to be developing on the hard-line remainer side—those who simply want to rewind the result.

I am a passionate remainer, not least because of the Irish issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley mentioned. I think that partly relates to our historic origins. However, the situation means we can play fast and loose with some big issues and, arguably, the great hallmarks and legacies of the previous Labour Administration. We should be careful what we wish for.

My point is simple. I can see how things could move quickly in the next few weeks. As someone said in the papers, we could move through the gears pretty quickly, and we have to game out what the consequences will be, after next Tuesday. One of those, which is appearing front and centre now, is the question of the second referendum. I simply say that anyone who is going to be vociferous in an argument for a second referendum must be clear about what they view as the consequences of that.

It seems to me that the key task of the political class should be national reconciliation in the months and years ahead. There is a danger that we could build and cement a canyon down the centre of the country. With that notion of caution, I simply say that I worry about the speed at which this second referendum is moving front and centre in the debate. I fear we could trip into positions that we should be wary of, unless we have done the preparatory work of fully understanding the consequences of them, which could shape the country for years ahead.

Tommy Sheppard Portrait Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP)
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3 Dec 2018, 5:10 p.m.

Like other hon. Members, I am a little surprised at the level of attendance at this afternoon’s debate. I can never tell with these things whether it is a lack of empathy across the House for the sentiments behind the petition or whether it is just that the Attorney General is bigger box office than this discussion, but we are where we are.

The way I see it is this: I do not think that in a free, open and democratic society we can say that people do not have the right to change their minds. Of course they do. A group of people voting in a referendum one day in history cannot forever bind people for the future. Any of us would be on very thin ice if we were to get into a situation of saying, “You can never have a second referendum on this question.” On the other hand, we have to accept that with big questions of governance and constitutional politics, we cannot go changing our mind every day, or every month, or even every year.

Therefore, we have to ask ourselves in what circumstances it is legitimate to consider a second referendum, a so-called people’s vote. There are three tests that need to be applied before the legitimacy test is passed. First, it must be demonstrated that the information on which people made their original decision is in some way compromised, either because it was wrong or because it is now obsolete and has been superseded by further developments. With regard to the Brexit referendum, I do not think anyone can argue other than that the information on which people based their decision was fatally flawed.

In response to the statement by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), I am not one of those who blame the electorate; I do not say that people were stupid or did not understand the question. I say they that were deliberately misled by people. I say that they were given information that was false, and deliberately so. In many ways the mendacity in that campaign was on an industrial scale. That is why people were conned in many ways into making the decision they did in June 2016.

Now we have an awful lot more information about what is at stake and what the consequences are, so we move on to the second test: have a significant number of people changed their minds on the question? By “significant”, I mean enough to produce a different result, were the question put again. Again, that test is met. It is consistently clear from opinion polls over three or four months—the latest one only today—that a large number of people have changed their mind on the question, sufficient to produce a different result were the question put again. The Prime Minister and the Government are fond of saying that 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, the biggest number in our history that have ever voted for anything. That is true, but here is the inconvenient truth: at least 2 million of them have now changed their minds. I think it is disrespectful to those people not at least to consider whether the circumstances are such that they should be consulted again.

The third test is that the Parliament or legislature charged with discharging the mandate from the referendum is either unwilling to do so, or incapable of doing so. We are not at that point yet, but I am fairly certain, and I have no reason to change my view from the speeches so far today, that next Tuesday evening Parliament will reject the withdrawal agreement that has been put before it by the Government. In those circumstances, we will be entering a period of unknown chaos, where the Parliament may well be incapable of making any decision. That political gridlock or stasis can perhaps only be resolved by putting the question back to the people who started the process in the first place—all the citizens of the country. I say therefore that a people’s vote should not be regarded as an alternative way of agreeing the withdrawal deal. It is going to happen, if it does, as a consequence of the failure of the Parliament and the Government to prepare a withdrawal deal.

I speak for the Scottish National party, the third party in the United Kingdom Parliament, so it would be remiss of me not to try to give some sort of perspective from north of the border. Scotland, as colleagues know, took a different view from the rest of Britain.