June 2, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith
A citizens assembly on Brexit could provide a way out of the current crisis by bringing people together to recommend a Brexit that would actually work for everyone.
Of the many mistakes Theresa May made as Prime Minister, one of the biggest was to pretend the referendum hadn’t been won by a small minority, and therefore a way needed to accommodate the concerns of the 48% who had voted Remain. If that had happened, it is far more likely we would have left the EU by now.
Leavers console themselves by pretending that they would have been ignored if they had got 48%. This is convenient pie in the sky. That result would have triggered a massive public reckoning of why it had been so close. It would also have been possible to implement some policy changes within EU rules to address some of the concerns that had got that 48% Leave vote – for instance Belgium’s immigration rules.
Instead, we got a 52-48 result with no plans for the radical change that entailed and incomplete instructions from the electorate. A sensible leader would not be threatening violence if they don’t get their way now, or threatening the massive self-harm of no deal. Instead, they would be suggesting a way to get Brexit through.
Which is why we should take much more seriously than we have so far Rory Stewart’s suggestion on BBC Question Time that some form of citizens assembly should be convened to find the nearest thing we can to a Brexit that works for as many people as possible.
I would go as far as saying that it David Cameron had had any inkling that there would be a Leave vote in his referendum, he might have, as part of planning for it, used the recommendations from a citizens assembly as the basis for how we might have left. He didn’t, and we are where we are.
The example of the citizens assembly used before the Abortion referendum is instructive as to how a citizens assembly can work.
It was made up of three groups, randomly selected: 33% people who were pro-abortion, 33% against, and 33% politicians. The inclusion of the latter group is important, because the Assembly’s recommendations have to be adopted by Parliament, and that is more likely to happen if politicians are on board from the start.
The way the citizens assembly worked Ireland was that they listened first to experts and interest groups coming from all sides of the argument. Then they spent time deliberating, with a facilitator. The idea of this was that both sides could air their concerns and try to come to some sort of agreement on what they could both accept. This dialogue increased the understanding each side had about where the other was coming from. Then from those deliberations some recommendations were made.
This produced the legislation that the Abortion referendum would be voting on. Like with Brexit, it could never just be Yes or No, but what would Yes (or No in the case of Brexit) look like.
The recommendations go to Parliament and can be adopted, amended or ignored. But they have considerable legitimacy and therefore in the case of the abortion referendum were almost wholly adopted.
This meant that the electorate actually knew what they were voting for. The No campaign couldn’t pretend that babies were going to be murdered, as through the deliberations it had been agreed what the maximum term was.
In exit polls, 66% of voters in the referendum were aware of the input of the Citizens Assembly. They also were aware of the efforts made to maintain balance in the expert and interest group presentations and the make up of the people there.
Compare this to the 2016 Brexit Referendum. When Dominic Cummings saw that David Cameron was not presenting a white paper or anything on what Leave would look like, he realised that his campaign were legally free to say that Leave meant whatever they wanted to.
Imagine what a citizens assembly could have achieved before the EU referendum if their terms of reference had been to agree what Leave would look like? Although Cameron’s Government would have been under no obligation to use that as a basis for their planning, at least the public would have had something to go from. Instead, nothing.
This leads us back to Rory Stewart’s idea of using a Citizens Assembly. Right now, we have two sides – the Brexiteers and the People’s vote side, both of whom are unwilling to compromise on what they want. The Brexiteers feel they have no need to compromise as they ‘won’. However, their win was non-binding, by a small majority, and gave incomplete instructions to the Government to carry out.
During the learning phase of a Citizens Assembly a balance of experts and interest groups can present both sides of the arguments on trade, on migration, on sovereignty for instance. The deliberation stage can then try and find a method of Brexit and other policies that get closest to meeting the aspirations of Brexiteers whilst mitigating the fears of Remainers. Then they produce a report which could be voted on by Parliament.
Those at the extremes of both sides will insist this won’t work. But they have no realistic ideas about what will work in reality. There was no vote for No Deal and there are many problems with revoking or voting again. Have they got any better ideas than Rory Stewart? I mean actual better ideas that might actually work and provide a solution other than the current slide to ‘civil war’?