How would a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit work?

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  • Deliberative democracy

There are growing calls for deliberative democracy to be part of the Brexit solution.

In Parliament, Theresa May has floated the idea of establishing a “more formal forum within which it is possible to bring people together” as an “important element of the next stage of the negotiation”. 

Any consultation process would be strengthened if it included citizen deliberation, as MPs like Stella Creasy have argued. But any deliberation processes must be well designed to work effectively.  

The RSA’s research on deliberative democracy gives us an insight into how a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit would work.

How long would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit take?

Stella Creasy suggests that a citizens’ assembly could be completed in 12 weeks. This would be a squeeze. While it might be just about feasible, it is not good to rush these processes.

Within this time:

  • Parliament would need to pass a motion for a citizens’ assembly
  • a delivery team would have to be put in place
  • participants would have to be recruited
  • materials and speakers would have to be selected
  • the actual assembly would have to take place.

These are all necessary steps. Skimping on time would cut short the most important stage – the discussion and deliberation of citizens.

The idea of a citizens’ assembly is to allow people to think and then judge, not just gather up their raw opinions. The longer citizens are given to deliberate the better. Therefore, we recommend at least 18 weeks.

12 weeks would leave at most a couple of weekends for deliberation, if the assembly were to meet on consecutive weekends.

Adding a few more weeks would give the citizens time and space to consider the arguments and make more productive recommendations. The Article 50 extension allows for this extra time.

All meetings should be professionally and impartially facilitated to provide structure, make everyone feel included, and coax out people’s wisdom.

How would people be chosen to take part in a citizens’ assembly on Brexit?

A citizens’ assembly would resemble the UK in miniature: broadly representative in terms of gender, geography, ethnicity, education, and Brexit vote.

Members should be recruited through a ‘civic lottery’. Thousands of letters would be sent out to randomly-selected people at households across the UK asking them to attend. Then a representative sample would be taken of those who register their interest, so that the final group is a microcosm of the country.

All opinions would be heard – this gives citizens’ assemblies legitimacy but is also why they produce such insightful recommendations.

What would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit discuss? Is it just another way to have a second referendum or overturn Brexit?

The Brexit citizens’ assembly could advise on what we should do next: should there be a general election, a second referendum, or a change of the kind of Brexit the government is seeking?

A citizens’ assembly is not just a way to introduce a second referendum or overturn Brexit. The assembly could recommend whatever idea it thought was best. This might include anything from a referendum to a certain type of Brexit deal. We would need to see what people agree when they talk to each other.   

If Parliament votes for a second referendum during this Article 50 extension, a citizens’ assembly could be used to inform the debate.

In this case, the assembly could be completed before the second referendum campaign begins. The BBC could run and broadcast this assembly (as suggested in a previous RSA blog), or alternatively it could be commissioned by government. The assembly’s final report could be sent out in an official voters’ guide.

This would introduce evidence-based argument into the referendum campaign. This has long been a requirement for certain referendums in Oregon where it has been shown to improve voters’ understanding of the issue at hand.

The UCL’s Constitution Unit has calculated that a second referendum would take a minimum of 22 weeks to execute, which means Parliament needs to act quickly if it wants a referendum in this Article 50 extension.

If there is another extension and if Parliament votes for a second referendum, a citizens’ assembly could be used to help come up with the right question for a public vote.

But if those things don’t happen, then a citizens’ assembly would approach the question of Brexit with an open mind.

What power would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit have?

Citizens’ assemblies don’t replace Parliament. In fact, they help MPs to gain a deeper understanding of what the public thinks and – crucially – why people think what they do.

Citizens’ assemblies provide an evidence-based input to political debate which is free from political games.

The decision whether to accept or reject the proposals remains with Parliament, but we hope that recommendations made by ordinary citizens would have moral force and real clout.

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  • We already have a "citizen's assembly", and there is not much "evidence" because this debate revolves around hypothetical scenarios and political tastes. We're in this position because we collectively can't make up our minds, not because we weren't consulted. This is why we have representative - as opposed to delegatory - democracy (see also Burke, Arrow and Peter Cook). Come on RSA, this is sloppy kitsch masquerading as analysis.

  • Parliament is deadlocked.

    A second referendum is not possible as there is no credible binary question - remain versus May's deal or remain versus no deal - unless you go back with the original question which would be a complete negation of democracy. And unlikely to resolve the issue whatever the result.

    The only solution is a general election where all the various positions can be debated ad nauseum and representatives are elected by a meaningful demos.  

    That is the deliberative democracy I am in favour of.  Citizens' juries are fine for marketeers and opinion pollsters but no way to run a country.  

  • What Matthew and Riley have suggested isn't, to my mind, either an abdication or evasion as some comments have suggested; nor is it just 'more of the same'. What deliberative democracy addresses is the shocking absence of patient listening within Parliament, Government, Cabinet and nation. For example, there is no plausible evidence that Theresa May understands what listening involves and looks like. For this reason I'd search for a different name rather than Citizens' Assembly - perhaps a National Conversation.

    But the National Conversation might need one new procedural resource which hasn't always been needed in other deliberative constructions: and that is some way to recognise that Brexit is not just about the UK and what 'we' want. Those in the Conversation will need some way of testing whether ideas would remotely be negotiable with the 27 (or, alternatively, some kind of assessment of the consequences likely to follow from the UK acting unilaterally). It would be too hard to create a mini-population to represent the 27, but instead something which enables the National Conversation to consider more objectively how its favourite ideas would appear to Europe - for example, if the National Conversation is drawn towards a have-cake-and-eat-it solution, they could be helped to consider how they would react if the UK decided to remain, and were responding to the same idea if it came from a secessionist, le Pen-led France.

    Two things have been utter poison in these Brexit years: not listening, and ludicrous unicorns. Deliberative democracy has a proven capability to address the first, but on this subject, will also need to address the second. I wonder if Matthew or Riley have any thoughts on that.

  • Lord Newby has already told directly the head of the Constitution Unit that such time period is not necessary (I was present). If there is a will the process can be accelerated. 

    • Or alternatively, in line with the philosophy of deliberative democracy, if there is a will the process can be decelerated. 

      Of course the sad reality is that if the will truly was there for deliberative & participative democracy, Britain wouldn't be where it is now, and there wouldn't be time pressures.


    How is this different from a referendum and/or Parliamentary process? Is this not simply an appeal for proportional representation?

    In principle the referendum was an open invitation for all social strata to show their interest and inclination. Millions did so. Parliament is (in principle at least) a fellowship required to act on that inclination.

    (I personally feel) the issue is not that too few people were involved in events to date, but rather that too many, and too many ill trained, individuals have been. 

    Parliament is itself a microcosm of the very structure being advocated here - and inertia by disagreement is the continued effect. Election or self-nomination to a public office in no way qualifies an individual to serve as a reliable or capable negotiator. Many would argue that anyone courting the spotlight is by nature unlikely to perform well in such a role.

    Two acute problems have yet to be addressed: Firstly, almost as many people wish to maintain our EU status as wish to remove it. Secondly, much like a young Alexander, having acted on the requirement of the referendum we are now destined to sever all ties... Like it or not, legally there is next to nothing the UK or EU can do about that.


    Perhaps, rather than seeking much of the same, we ought to apply a little hostage thinking. Let's employ a proven negotiator (New Zealand made an offer some years ago). Let's make it a requirement of politicians to stay silent whilst negotiations take place. Let's get out there and speak to the Commonwealth and every nation that still sees a reason to trade with us... and let us all get back to what we are good at - working our legs off to deliver the innovative products and services that this nation will need in order to escape this shameful state of affairs.

    • Hi Hugh. Deliberative & participative democracy approaches are fundamentally different to other forms of democracy based on representation, including the particular form of parliamentary representation that a country chooses to have - I've experienced two forms, being a dual citizen of Britain & Australia. 

      Proportional representation would be a way of reforming (some would say improving) the British parliamentary system. In Australia, we have preference voting for the House of Representatives and a form of proportional representation for the Senate. We also have compulsory voting with fines for those who don't vote.

      But, again, this is different to deliberative & participative democracy approaches, such as Citizens' Assemblies. Referenda are different again. The degree of deliberation & participation depends on how they are constituted and implemented. In many countries, including Australia, referenda are built into the constitution for when consitutional change is required and it requires a public vote rather than parliament deciding. 

      In Australia, for constitutional change to be made, there has to be a majority of voters supporting the change and a majority of the States. The equivalent would be a UK Referendum needing a majority of the UK and then three of the four of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland & Wales having a majority. 

      Different countries have different stipulations & thresholds. Indeed the UK has had two-thirds majority for past referenda. Also, there's no law that a Referendum has to be a single binary choice. It can cover more options and more than one question. 

      These are all different forms of democracy, ie ways of trying to implement democratic principles such as 'of the people, by the people, for the people' and 'the right of people to be involved in decisions that affect their lives', whether by direct representation or via chosen representatives.   

    •  "Let's make it a requirement of politicians to stay silent whilst negotiations take place".


      Is just about everyone at RSA now in an orbit of evasion around Brexit?

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