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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  • This piece represents a complete abdication of intellectual responsibility. Brexit crisis?  -  let's have tabula rasa, start the debate again as if the last two years have not happened, take the ball off the "elites".

    The RSA should be ashamed of itself. It is scared of having an opinion  -  for fear of offending. Ugh.

    • Hi James,

      Thank you for commenting, but I think that you're being slightly unfair. At no point does the article suggest that we should start the debate again. On the contrary, we’re suggesting a citizens’ assembly as a method for informing the ongoing debate and hopefully improving the quality of that debate. Furthermore, many of the above suggestions are conditional - for instance, how a citizens' assembly could improve the quality of a referendum debate in the event of one being called. So we're not asking for a rerun of the debate but suggesting how a citizens' assembly could contribute to potential future scenarios.

      I suppose this might be why you say that we're 'scared of having an opinion', but this blog was never supposed to lay out an RSA position on Brexit. It is about good standards and process in the context of an immobilised parliamentary debate. We explicitly say that deliberative democracy does not replace this parliamentary debate and that it can n fact inform it and help politicians to make decisions on thorny issues. The RSA is not advocating for any particular version of Brexit, but is rather trying to add valuable perspectives to the debate, while being mindful of the diversity of opinion on this issue within the fellowship.

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