“A referendum can be a dangerous tool” (David Davis MP)

28 Jan 2019.

David Davis knew the danger of superficial, binary referendums – he warned The Commons back in 2002 …

[This is an excerpt from an upcoming book by Campbell Macpherson, author of The Change Catalyst, the 2018 Business Book of the Year.]

Ironically, one of the leading Tory Brexiteers warned the entire Parliament, including a fresh-faced David Cameron, against the danger of a simplistic referendum way back in 2002.

David Davis, then Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, gave the following speech in the House of Commons on 26 November 2002. Less than three years later, Mr Davis would lose to David Cameron in his Party’s leadership contest and would go on to be one of the most prominent Leave campaigners of the 2016 referendum. Immediately after the result, Davis was appointed to be the UK’s first Brexit Secretary (or ‘Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union’ to use the formal title). His speech back in 2002 was insightful. If only he and David Cameron had actually been taking notes … Davis said:

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.”

Pause for breath, reminder yourself who actually made this excellent speech and then read the sections I have underlined again. David Davis, arch-Leaver and inaugural Brexit Secretary, obviously knew how a referendum should be run – but his 2002 words were either forgotten or ignored by David Cameron, and Davis said nothing during the campaign to remind him.

(This section of the book then goes on to contrast Cameron’s referendum with the Australian Republic referendum 20 years ago.)


Campbell Macpherson

Author. Advisor. Speaker. Change Catalyst




About the Author:

Campbell Macpherson: change expert, author, speaker and adviser. Author of 'The Change Catalyst: secrets to successful and sustainable change' published by Wiley and available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Booktopia.com.au. He has been enabling organisations to successfully instigate sustainable change for almost thirty years across the UK, Europe, US, Australia, Asia and the Middle East.

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