Citizens’ assemblies: breaking the Brexit deadlock?


With Parliament unable to agree away forward on Brexit, the only option other than no deal is a long delay for the UK to rethink its approach. Europe is still open to this, but says it needs a “strong justification”.

Citizens’ Assemblies offer a new way to resolve the issue and help unite the country during that period.

A no plan Brexit and broken public trust

The Tory party’s search for a quick, simple fix, largely driven by its internal needs, has defined the Europe debate so far. Contrast this with Harold MacMillan’s decision to apply for membership in 1961, based on a deep and comprehensive analysis, or Labour’s 23 volumes on whether to join the euro. Little wonder Westminster and Whitehall failed to secure a workable agreement, and that few members of the public find it possible to support the options now on the table.

This present deadlock is reason enough to bring the public back into the debate. But, more important, we have not just a government unable to lead but a public unwilling to be led. 68% of people now feel none of the main political parties speaks for them. ‘Betrayal’ and ‘treason’ are the everyday language of debate. Remain supporters say the referendum was won by lies and stolen data; Leave supporters feel robbed of a clean break with Europe.

A last minute compromise deal, with far-reaching economic and social consequences, conjured up behind closed doors in Westminster, will not get public acceptance from either. People already deeply distrust the Brexit political process.

The dialogue Britain now needs is not just one between Parliament and government, but one between our political elites and the people, and among people of different perspectives. In fact, the public is increasingly open to alternatives which can involve them, but outreach must go beyond a few explanatory leaflets and public meetings – rather a bottom-up process that includes a genuine willingness to listen and respond.

The evidence is that people are perfectly capable of making complicated policy decisions, if they are given the right mechanisms for considered deliberation.

Citizens’ Assemblies are groups of citizens brought together to consider an issue. Participants are usually chosen at random from a range of demographics representing the wider population, and are given the time and opportunity to learn about and discuss a topic before reaching conclusions. They are asked to make trade-offs and arrive at workable recommendations. Evidence and experience take centre stage. Complex issues are debated and thrashed out in interactive discussion. Information is tested for accuracy; experts are challenged; different viewpoints interrogated and a view reached after balanced, reasoned, discussion of complex issues.

Such deliberative processes are increasingly used worldwide to deal with intractable, divisive questions, often those party politicians shy away from. They have been used in North America, Asia and Canada on issues as diverse as nuclear power, electoral and constitutional reform and abortion

In Ireland abortion, like Brexit, is a question of identity: is the Republic a Catholic country, or a liberal one?  A Citizens’ Assembly of 100 meeting over several months took much of the sting out of the debate, as the majority of the public were aware of its work. One participant recalls: “I felt empowered and informed – it gave me the language and skills to have difficult discussions. In a room of 100 people, only a handful ever tried to create division or build walls among us.”

They have even been tried in the UK. In 2018 a Commons Committee commissioned a Citizens’ Assembly which recommended new ways of paying for adult social care. In 2010 a series of assemblies debated a British bill of rights. A small pilot on Brexit was run in 2017 by the charity Involve: after two weekends, it chose to leave with a trade deal and preferential access, but not free movement, for EU citizens. Failing such a deal, it favoured remaining in the single market, with free movement under tight controls.

Practical proposals for assemblies on Brexit

The EU still holds out the possibility of a long delay for the UK to sort out its approach to Brexit, but wants a strategy to deal with the impasse, not more indecision.

Brexit is an issue crying out for deliberative processes. Electoral politics has failed to resolve it, but citizens are more open to pragmatic solutions than parties vying for power. By making people talk to those who don’t share their opinion, deliberation also addresses the ‘echo chamber’ problem.

In Britain’s present dilemma, they offer a plan, an opportunity to build some national consensus on our European relationship and scope to begin to rebuild trust in our democratic institutions.

In the end the decision-making power of Parliament cannot be contracted out: the issue must ultimately be resolved there. We would however be giving our legislators new information and insights to make and to legitimate their final decisions.

What is needed now is a commitment to a deliberative process to consult the public, and agreement with the EU on the length (say 12 or 21 months) of delay. The government should then set in motion a series of regional Assemblies, maybe ten or more in number, running over a period of months and finishing well before the deadline. As well as a representative mix on demographic variables, a balance of those who are pro- and anti-Brexit is needed to help understand how to bring citizens together.

They must be fairly run: not just people chosen to be representative, but input from experts and others that is transparent, and beyond criticism of bias. There is therefore a case for oversight by an independent and authoritative Commission which would be responsible for the mechanics of the Assemblies themselves, the aggregation of the information from them and reporting to the public and Parliament on the outcomes.

Media exposure will be vital, perhaps via livestreaming on the internet. Traditional and social media possibly offer a way for even greater numbers to get involved and have a say.

Concluding the process

Discussion must be without any preconditions as to the outcome. All possibilities must be on the table. Do the Norway, Canada or WTO or the May options answer the desire for change, or is something else needed? It will have to grapple with the complexities of the Irish situation. Discussion on the state of our industries, our towns and cities is inevitable. It could cover initiatives to resolve Brexit issues and underlying popular concerns, so far largely ignored, such as immigration and sovereignty.

The process would culminate by reporting the considered views of the Assemblies to Parliament and the public for review, followed by a decision by Parliament. If Parliament concludes the situation has changed, there can be a renegotiation with Europe. That could lead to a further referendum – not to rerun the last one, but as a validation of what could be new proposals.

The UK is in an unenviable position. No version of Brexit has parliamentary support. None will gain the assent of a divided electorate. The only alternative to no deal – the least popular option – is to agree a long delay with the EU. Seeking delay is therefore inevitable, but not enough. We need a plan.

A deliberative process of Citizens’ Assemblies offers the best way forward. The method is tried and tested worldwide as a way of addressing intractable problems that defeat electoral politics. It could help reconnect voters with one another and with the political system. A practical plan exists to put it into effect.

To coin a phrase, there is no alternative.

By Professor Jim Gallagher, former Scottish civil servant and member of the Gwylim Gibbon Policy Unit at Nuffield College, Oxford.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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