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Ken Clarke: The origin of referendums lies with people such as Napoleon and Mussolini

Ken Clarke MP explains his opposition to a referendum:

"There has only ever been one United Kingdom-wide referendum in this country. I had the pleasure of campaigning hard in that election and of finding myself on the winning side. I very much hope that we never have a second referendum, and I am rather appalled that I should be taking part in a debate so many years later in which people are pressing to have another UK-wide referendum.

The precedent was a bad one. In my opinion, Harold Wilson called that referendum for totally cynical reasons, as is widely acknowledged on all sides. He was concerned about party management, almost regardless of which way the result would go. In the event, the pro-European side won quite easily—by a two-to-one majority, I recall—and the people who had demanded the referendum immediately reneged on their undertaking to abide by the result.

A referendum was demanded in those days by the people who were the most numerous Eurosceptics—the ancestors of the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson). Benn and the left regarded the European Union as a capitalist plot, and the moment they took control of the Labour party in the early 1980s, they started campaigning for immediate withdrawal from the European Union, with no more referendums. The whole thing was a sad and cynical exercise, which fortunately did not do too much lasting damage.

Over the years, the only advocates of referendums as an addition to our constitution whom I can think of—the landmark people—have been Tony Benn and Jimmy Goldsmith. Both of them represented Eurosceptic opinion, but until recently they were, comparatively speaking, voices in the wilderness.

We do not have to go back too long to find a time when people in this House who really believed in the value of referendums were hard to find. Indeed, it was quite easy for them to be swept away. I served under three Prime Ministers: Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. I am glad to say that under each of them, we overruled demands for referendums—almost always on Europe—with the support of the mainstream of the Labour party. It was the accepted wisdom of parliamentarians that we were against them.

I am astonished to find the atmosphere so completely changed now. In fact, it worries me that members of the political ruling class of this country have now lost their self-confidence and their ability to rely on their legitimacy as parliamentarians to such an extent that no one among them dares defy the media, the hard-line Eurosceptics or any other people who demand a referendum, because they find themselves faced with a parliamentary majority that they seek to overturn."

Mike Gapes MP interjects: "I very much agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It would be helpful to the House if could quote the words of Baroness Thatcher. As far as I can recall, she quoted Clement Attlee describing a referendum as “a device of demagogues and dictators”.  Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree with that view?

Ken Clarke: "I remember it. I cannot remember the precise words, but it is actually true. The origin of referendums lies with people such as Napoleon and Mussolini. They were populist people who wished to override their parliamentary institutions and to appeal to the people on carefully chosen issues."


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