Bruce Ackerman is an American academic with a knack for coming up with radical policy ideas that might work. In his book The Stakeholder Society he proposed giving all US citizens a sizeable capital sum at birth. This idea has been taken up, in diluted form, in the British government’s “baby bond.” Now Ackerman has published a book (with James S Fishkin), Deliberation Day, whose central idea should also be taken up by the Blair government as it prepares to battle against myth and paranoia to win a referendum on the EU constitution next year. As the Prospect roundtable debaters on the British constitution agreed, there are no quick fixes for raising the quantity and quality of political engagement – but “deliberation day” is a simple idea that is worth serious consideration.
Ackerman’s argument is this: elite-dominated representative democracy has been replaced by a more popular strain. This is inevitable and welcome; the challenge is to channel the new assertiveness into politically responsible forms. That means trying to tackle the vast political ignorance of most citizens, especially on complex issues like the EU constitution or the euro. A new form of public consultation, known as “deliberative polling,” in which hundreds of randomly chosen citizens gather over a weekend to discuss big issues, has established that participants greatly increase their understanding of issues and often change their minds on the best course of action (when Europe is discussed people invariably shift in a pro-EU direction). The Ackerman and Fishkin proposal is that ten days before big national referendums – and perhaps before general elections too – there should be a national holiday in which a nationwide version of deliberative polling takes place using a combination of national television, neighbourhood and town hall meetings, allowing those citizens who wish to join in to inform themselves, discuss and debate.
The EU constitution is an uninspiring document. However, it includes some good ideas for streamlining the workings of the EU and defines more clearly where the EU can and cannot act. But unlike in 1975, when the first referendum on Europe was won, much of the media will be arguing that this innocuous document is a threat to British liberties. A deliberation day could help challenge some of that nonsense.
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