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Time for our national broadcaster to step up to the plate

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  • Deliberative democracy
  • Institutional reform

The proposal to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit received some publicity in December when it was the subject of a succinct and convincing letter signed by – among others – Ian McEwan, Damon Albarn and Rowan Williams.

The case for some kind of deliberative process to try to reframe a frozen debate and open up new possibilities is growing in strength, but right now there are three reasons it probably will not succeed.

First, the case is entirely associated with Remainers. This means that while the idea of a representative sample of people hearing all sides of the debate and working through the issues is hard for anyone to oppose, it is easy to caricature. This Daily Mail article on the letter signed by Albarn captures it perfectly; a sneering and tendentious headline, "Don't worry, the luvvies will fix this!" (all most people will read), followed by an article which makes the idea sound completely reasonable.

Second, relatedly, most people don’t understand what is involved in a Citizens’ Assembly (or more broadly deliberative democracy). To the uninitiated, the idea that a group of ordinary citizens could be genuinely representative, the evidence could really be balanced, that people with different starting points could debate in a positive way and change their views as a result can seem far-fetched and fishy. Of course, as we know from experiments all around the world, and even some here, all this and more is achievable. Indeed, among the greatest advocates of deliberative processes are the people who have been through them having being sceptical at the outset.

Third, the Government has shown no interest in using deliberation as a way of recasting the public debate. This may change if the vote on the draft deal is lost but it is equally likely that we will then be plunged into a combination of attempts to renegotiate again plus more preparations for a ‘no deal’ exit. (In all likelihood this will in fact be an ‘emergency deal’ exit, not a 'no deal' exit. The roof won’t cave in, but some things will be difficult and risks will be mounting. This will lead Brexiteers to shout loudly that ‘operation fear’ has been defeated and that the future is rosy. Remainers will argue with equal conviction that the problems are just beginning. Thus, the debate will simply continue but in worsening circumstances.)

Is there anything that can be done? Yes, and there is one organisation that could make the breakthrough. At the risk of being sacked from Moral Maze, I am using this post to urge those who support deliberation to turn their attention to the BBC.

The Corporation could immediately announce its intention to commission experts in deliberative democracy. I suggest using partners from USA, Canada or Australia, as any UK organiser would immediately fall under hostile scrutiny. The event could comprise a weekend-long assembly or possibly one over two days a week apart. If the process was agreed tomorrow the event could be held by the end of February. This isn't the place to get into the detail, but I would advocate involving about 100 people drawn from across the UK and selected by an independent sampling organisation. 

The BBC’s convening power would be enough to bring all sides of opinion to the process. By commandeering digital TV and radio channels to broadcast the event live and using other terrestrial channels to report on it regularly, the BBC could engage the whole nation in observing and discussing what happens when ordinary folk are given the time, space, and support to work with each other to find ways forward. It would be made clear at the outset that the aim is not reach a consensus but to see what emerges from such a process; one that lets citizens think for themselves rather than reacting to the propaganda churned out by self-interested and compromised politicians. It might make no difference – these processes don’t always work  but surely it is worth trying.

This would be a risk for the BBC. It would get attacked by people who don’t believe such a process is possible, who question the motives of its advocates or who are fearful of the outcome. The Board and Executive would need the courage to stick to their guns, the confidence and skill to make it work both as a democratic and broadcasting event and, most of all, the conviction that, whatever the political establishment and anti-establishment says, the public would see this as the corporation bravely fulfilling its charter to the nation. As well as exemplifying public service this initiative could renew the case for the BBC just at a time when other rationales for it and for the license fee are eroding.

P.S. For those interested in deliberative democracy more generally, the RSA will be launching a campaign for deliberative democracy in 2019

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  • I will set aside the question of whether the BBC has any legitimate role in our attempting to engage directly in our political process. The more fundamental question for me is "why are we here?" As a Brit who has also acquired US citizenship, I have, perhaps a different perspective: the UK has a constitutional problem.

    The vote for Brexit was, ultimately, a reflection of the lack of democratic legitimacy of the various ratchet-like steps that have been taken - absent popular consent - to undermine the role of Parliament and transfer law-making powers to Brussels. Those Americans who understand this look on with astonishment, as it would be utterly inconceivable for a US government to fiddle so recklessly with the country's constitution. Moreover, the US constitution makes it very clear that the US "parliament" (Congress) and its government are the servants (not the rulers) of the people. As such, they have only those powers that the constitution gives them. The giving-away of power that the UK government has so carelessly engaged in over the past 4 decades would be unthinkable in the US. (There is, in fact, a "doctrine of non-delegation" that goes even further).

    A "Citizens' Assembly" is a great idea - once we've freed ourselves from the EU. Anything that prevents the clean Brexit that was so obviously voted for would be a democratic outrage. Then, Citizens' Assemblies would be a valuable part of forming a renewed constitution for the UK - one that plants powers squarely with the people (above parliament) and which anticipates its own amendment by making the process of constitutional crystal clear, and very difficult. But after we have truly left the EU.

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