Why Theresa May should reach for her inner Pankhurst: time for a National Citizens’ Jury on Brexit

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With the Prime Minister struggling to develop a workable mandate on Brexit and further calls for a second referendum, it is time we took inspiration from the Suffrage movement, reached into the democratic toolbox and found a better way to resolve this national conundrum.

There is merit and logic to the argument that we should put a series of Brexit options back to the general public through a second referendum.  Our own Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, was one of the first to promote the cause most recently taken up by Justine Greening and he has further elaborated this idea. Downing Street has of course rejected this course of action as a last ditch attempt by Remoaners to make a swift U-turn. But for all the Prime Minister’s trials and tribulations with her party, what is perhaps being most laid bare is the fragility of a Parliamentary system addicted to whipping, behind the scenes deals and the kind of gamesmanship the public is baffled and horrified by.

There is a deep irony that the same people who loudly argue that Brexit referendum represents the democratic will of the people also seem most adept at deploying the dark arts of some of the most undemocratic features of our Parliamentary process and the most averse to running a further exercise to exact a direct democratic mandate. Claims that the 52:48 referendum result represents the clear will of the people are of course overblown, it doesn’t take a professional statistician to tell us that this is a very weak mandate albeit a winning one, but to castigate those who raise this concern as an anti-democratic elite betrays a warped understanding of democratic practice. 

Democracies flourish through their use of a wide range of tools. Voting for elected representatives - in our case a House of Commons – is a central feature of most developed nations and became the hallmark of nineteenth and twentieth century democracies around the world. These have depended on other democratic institutions including second chambers, a free press, the legal system, and different forms of civic education, all designed to refine and enhance decision-making. And at times these have required reinvention and reform, most notably the advent of universal suffrage brought about through the campaign and sacrifice of remarkable women exactly one hundred years ago.

In recent decades, more direct forms of democratic practice have been used as referenda have become cost-effective ways for governments to establish a more direct mandate for action. Participatory processes have also been tried to bring people closer to the day-to-day decisions that affect them. This ecosystem of democratic practice is essential to unlocking the wisdom of the crowd that many now see as the distinctive feature of democratic – as opposed to autocratic or oligarchic – systems that enable economic progress and social enlightenment.

As might be expected, different types of democratic decision-making are better made using different democratic tools. In 'our call to action on deliberative democracy', I have created a matrix to explore this proposition. It is my assertion that in the case of Brexit – a highly complex issue involving long-term implications for a very diverse population – direct democracy (a referendum) is the least suited tool to establish a democratic mandate at the outset. Furthermore, representative democracy with its relatively short-term time horizon and volatile politics also has significant limitations when it comes to taking such a long-term decision. We need a better democratic tool.

In recent weeks, stimulated by Matthew Taylor’s Chief Executive’s lecture and a new book by James Fishkin entitled Democracy when the people are thinking, deliberative democratic practices have been heralded as a missing tool from the UK’s democratic toolbox. And so they should. Deliberative practices come in different forms perhaps the most well-known being a citizens’ jury but they have a number of key features which lend themselves to resolving a challenge like our future relationship with the European Union far better than direct or representative forms of democracy can.

First, in order to ensure they create a mandate for action, citizens’ juries are representative. Whether drawn by lot or very carefully sampled, their virtue is that they can actually be more representative than an elected assembly. Consider, for example, the trust we place in criminal juries as being people like us taking decisions on our behalf. Citizens’ juries follow that same logic. A National Citizens’ Jury on Brexit, for example, could be carefully sampled to ensure 52 per cent of its participants voted to leave but it would also ensure that its members came from all walks of life, all age groups and ethnicities and all parts of the country, in proportion to their make-up of the general population. 

Second, citizens’ juries are truly deliberative: they weigh up the evidence with the express purpose of finding common ground. This is the very antithesis of parliamentary politics where opposing sides trade blows with a view to establishing numerical advantage. As with criminal juries, citizens’ juries typically meet over extended periods to weigh evidence and tease out opinion. They contemplate and consider options with a view to finding a common mind. Clearly, in the case of Brexit, the facilitation of a National Citizens’ Jury would be crucial but as we know, our civil service has been working diligently to identify options and their wider implications and it would not be impossible to identify an independent figure with some clout – as with a high court judge - to ensure the jury’s deliberations are full and fair.

Thirdly – and crucially – citizens’ juries must be commissioned and carry weight. While different democratic practices may suit different circumstances, it would be naïve to think that they all carry equal weight. Citizen engagement in such processes requires an understanding that their deliberation will be taken seriously – otherwise it is nothing more than a focus group. The excellent experiment carried out by our partner organisation, Involve, who actually held their own deliberative exercise on Brexit and proved just how mature and decisive public deliberation of the issue can be was only limited by the fact that it had no purchase on the political system. In the UK, Parliament still rules and so it must be that any national citizens’ jury on Brexit must come with the endorsement of the government at the very least.

So what then of the outcome an National Citizens’ Jury on Brexit might derive. In part this depends upon the question that is set: it may well be that the best approach would be to ask the jury to come up with a set of options upon which the whole nation would vote as Matthew Taylor’s recent blog suggests. It may be for them to identify a single negotiating position. Though few red-blooded politicians will get this, the outcome is less important than the mandate. The government’s problem now is that almost any negotiating position they might be able to accommodate in Parliament is fundamentally flawed by the time it reaches Brussels as negotiators there are well aware of the problems in its design. The outcome of a National Citizens’ Jury, endorsed by government or Parliament or a second referendum, would be almost impossible for the EU to resist as it would so obviously be the collective will of the people by its very design. Furthermore, a National Citizens’ Jury on Brexit, if constructed and conducted according to these principles, would also meet the express wish of those wanting political decision-making to be taken out of the hands of an elected elite and put firmly in the grasp of the people themselves.

It is not just Theresa May who is looking for a mandate, as a nation we need a democratic system that once again gives power to the people and takes decision-making out of the theatre that is our Parliament – elected or not. On Brexit, the defining issue of our times, we need the collective courage as a nation to dig deep in the democratic toolbox and once again become democratic pioneers. A National Citizens’ Jury, representative of the people, determined to find a common mind, and with the full backing of the government, could deliver Theresa May a mandate that none in her party nor in Brussels could resist and return the nation to the forefront democratic innovation, but to grasp it she must reach for her inner Pankhurst.

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  • This is a great blog! But I am worried. I am worried because much haste, is less speed. David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister, hastily rushed into calling a referendum on Brexit in order to get himself out of a local difficulty within the Conservative Party; precipitating a crisis like nothing else we have seen in living memory. The dirty deed was done; the prudent thing, and I am sure I will not be popular for putting it on the record, is to follow through with the decision to leave Europe, while at the same time applying our best endeavours to minimize the damage to the UK as a whole.

    These endeavours may, I think, include the establishment of a National Citizens' Jury. A National Citizens' Jury is a brilliant idea, but it needs time for it to be successful. Else it may prove to be just as blunt a democratic tool as the referendum proved in 2016. The danger as I see it is as follows: It is easy to subscribe to ringing declarations and ambitions that a National Citizens' Jury clearly is, but a great deal harder to balance vision with practical measures necessary to implement it successfully. Failure to implement a National Citizen' Jury successfully may be tantamount to a fraud and a deceit on a people; a frustration of their legitimate expectations, especially those just expectations a National Citizen's Jury will have raised. 

    • The original title for this blog was "Pause!" - precisely because I think a National Citizens' Jury should be given the time necessary to deliberate properly. I don't think this needs to be any longer than 12 months though and could be shorter still - but you're right, you couldn't do this adequately in a weekend!

  • Thanks Ed. Potentially very exciting development - for The RSA; for those of us who have been advocating for deliberative & participative democracy for many years, and putting it into practice wherever possible; and of course for anyone who wants to see a resolution to 'the Brexit problem'. 

    To demonstrate the value of a deliberative and participative approach, I would applaud the proposal to tackle the biggest, most complex, highest profile, and highest priority issues - so setting the bar high with Brexit is suitably ambitious and to be applauded. 

    This makes it all the more important that the approach is right. Make sure it is a high profile success not a high profile 'failure' - and there are many risks here. 

    Just as it was foolish to try and resolve a complex and complicated issue like Brexit via a single question in a referendum, it would be foolish to try and resolve it via a single Citizens' Jury. We'd play into the hands of those lining up to criticise and scupper our efforts. 

    However, we have lots of tools in our deliberative democracy toolkit, decades of experience, many people (including Fellows) with expertise in this field, and therefore the capacity to design & deliver a model example of participative democracy for resolving the Brexit conundrum that will open the door for many other (less complex or contentious) issues to be subject to deliberative and participative approaches. 

    And a great opportunity to practice what we preach by designing & delivering it together.

    It's great to see that the next in the excellent series of RSA ANZ initiated/facilitated online events is on this most topical topic of Deliberative Democracy:


    Tuesday 31 July:

    ~ 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm AEST

    ~ 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm NZST

    ~ 8:00 am - 9:30 am BST 

    Looking forward to discussing this further. 

    • Thanks for this Paul - we look forward to joining the online discussion.

  • In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa  May thrust aside all respect for democracy: she treated a non-binding referendum as binding; she ignored the rights of 48% of the population who voted; and called for a Hard Brexit without any consultation or discussion with the people's elected representatives.  Why do we talk as though we are a democracy?

    I fear Justine Greening's advocacy for a choice of 3 alternatives would divide the Remain voters - the old rule of divide and conquer would play into the hands of the Hard Brexiteers. 

    But then, it may be all too late. Without any planning or consultation, the PM triggered Article 50 when it was strategically unwise to do so. Would a  Remain majority in a second referendum make any difference to our dire situation. Is there a way back? 

    I am not convinced that a National Citizen's Jury is the answer, but I am willing to seek information and give the concept some  consideration. 

  • I should put my credentials on the table before I start. I am a lifelong supporter of EFTA and the EEA and I was devastated all those years ago when the UK was forced to ditch EFTA by the smallprint of EEC/EU membership. I supported Brexit in large part because it is the necessary first step to rejoining EFTA.
    I want Theresa May to explain why she feels that rejoining EFTA/EEA does not deliver on the Brexit mandate, while her White Paper does.
    But I do not want this to get in the way of the current negotiations. The reality is that the UK government must broker a deal with the EU. No amount of UK referenda or change.org petitions will change the EU's position. The last thing we should be doing is boxing our own government in at this crucial time.
    The time for refinement will come later, after we have left.

  • Ed,

    Your idea has some merits, but the composition of such a jury needs to be:

    - 37% Leave;

    - 35% Remain and

    - 28% Did not vote.

    Also, your comment:

    “The outcome of a National Citizens’ Jury, endorsed by government or Parliament or a second referendum, would be almost impossible for the EU to resist as it would so obviously be the collective will of the people by its very design.”

    is symptomatic of the lack of understanding of the structure and workings of the EU, which has characterised almost every aspect of debate in the UK.

    The EU