It might give nervous politicians a way out—but don’t put too much faith in the ability of a Citizen's Assembly to actually create consensus around Brexitby Chaminda Jayanetti / April 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
Britain must soon decide how to decide what it can’t decide. The EU bailed out Britain with a lengthy extension to Article 50 last week—but we will still need to work out what we will do with our lifeline.
The true shambles of Brexit Britain is that it cannot even agree on the process by which its decisions will be made. Leave it to parliament? If so, how—by voting repeatedly on Theresa May’s deal? Indicative votes? Preferential votes? Votes with imaginary ‘locks’ thrown in so we can pretend to bind a future parliament? And that’s before we even mention a People’s Vote.
Into this mess has emerged the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly (CA). This punts the question back to “the people” but—its advocates argue—without the acrimony and division of a second referendum.
The idea of a Citizens’ Assembly may take root now a lengthy A50 extension has been agreed—it already has support from Labour MPs led by Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy.
Under the plan, 500 randomly-chosen members of the public, demographically representative of the UK, would consider the issues in depth and try and reach a consensus on the best way forward—assisted by input from experts.
“As has been made abundantly clear, referendums alone, like elections, are blunt instruments that remove complexity in pursuit of simple propositions,” Creasy and Nandy wrote in support of the idea in January.
Getting people into a room to sift through complex issues is certainly more nuanced than a Leave/Remain referendum. But can it unite the country?
The first Citizen’s Assembly
An unofficial, scaled down Brexit CA was held in Manchester in September 2017.
Involving 50 members of the public, the CA spent two weekends deliberating options for Britain’s future relationship with the EU in trade and immigration. The atmosphere was calm and consensual, in contrast to the national political rhetoric.
But September 2017 is a long time ago. The Manchester CA excluded the options of holding a second referendum or revoking A50, neither of which held wide public support at the time.
Opinion among Remainers has since hardened: a CA in 2019 would have to include a route to cancelling Brexit in order to secure broad support for the process itself. Merely…