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 including this as an option, however, may disrupt the harmonious dynamic among CA members.
The Manchester CA threw up some valuable insights. Very few members were initially aware that single market rules allow some restrictions on free movement of people to prevent abuse of the system—when they realised this, they specifically asked for this to be offered as an option when selecting their preferences, and indeed this option turned out to be the most popular.
Over the course of the CA process, members became slightly more critical of Brexit, and slightly more supportive of free movement.
What didn’t work
However, the Manchester CA also shows why it is unlikely to succeed as part of a formal solution to Britain’s Brexit crisis.
The organisers said that members reached a consensus around trying to negotiate a softer Brexit—and this is true.
But within that, they were divided—especially when measuring all preferences rather than just first preferences. Under first preferences, there was a clear majority for maintaining free movement, but on all preferences, there was a majority against, with a near-even split.
In terms of an overall approach to Brexit, members were again deeply split between staying in the single market and leaving it with a trade deal. Maybe members would have settled for either, without strong preferences against one or the other—but this division lies at the core of MPs’ existing concerns over sovereignty, and Britain’s status as a ‘rule taker’ or ‘rule maker.’
If the Manchester CA couldn’t reach a consensus on this question, why would a larger, official CA manage when the stakes are higher and the atmosphere more fraught? And how would a CA’s evenly split decision reduce the splits in the House of Commons?
A way out for MPs?
That is to say nothing of the risk that hardliners on both sides would attempt to challenge the credibility of an official CA process by scrutinising its members—their social media posts, political party leanings, and so on.
The political extremes rely on the breakdown of consensual politics. CA members tasked with finding such a consensus could find themselves in their firing line, exposing them to intrusive coverage and potentially worse.
There is no Brexit outcome that will not leave Britain divided for many years to come—all that can reunite the country are time and sheer boredom.
But there is a whiff of blame-avoidance in the calls for a Brexit Citizens’ Assembly—in the sense of politicians avoiding getting the blame for both a second vote and the eventual Brexit outcome.
And for all this, Britain could spend months on a CA process and end up stuck where it is now—with party leaders split between various Brexit deals and large swathes of the public wanting no Brexit or no deal.
And we would still have to decide what we can’t decide.