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I better write this short post now. That way no one can say I merely did so because I didn’t get the outcome I wanted from today’s vote.

Yesterday on Moral Maze we debated whether the referendum had been good for Britain.  The general view, in as much as there was any consensus, being that while it is great to see so many people engaged in a conversation about policy and politics, the content and tone of much of the campaigning has been deeply depressing. The debate about the effect of the referendum and the mirror it has held up to us has been raging for a while and will continue long after today. Whoever wins, one promise the process is unlikely to deliver is that it ‘settles the issue’. Expect many among those who lose to say over the weekend that they have been cheated by the other side’s lies and machinations before retiring to prepare for referendum two.

Much of this debate is about the relative merits of representative democracy versus referenda. ‘Surely’ say the critics – their arguments bolstered by continuing high levels of public confusion and ignorance – ‘EU membership is just the kind of complex issue we should expect those we elect to resolve on our behalf?’ But little or no attention has gone to how much better things might have worked out had we opted for some form of deliberative democracy.

Around the world – as Claudia Chwalisz will show in a forthcoming book – there is growing and successful use of deliberative methods. The fundamentals are the same everywhere. A group of representative citizens is selected on the basis of robust and open procedures. These citizens then spend an extended period – a long weekend or a few days spaced over several months – assessing evidence and quizzing experts. The process is overseen by deliberation professionals acting on a strictly impartial basis and, usually, all the proceedings can be viewed or read by anyone so inclined.  The outcomes of these exercises (which the participants nearly always enjoy) can be very influential but – unlike a referendum – they are generally seen as ways of guiding and enhancing representative democracy not usurping it. If politicians want to ignore the outcomes they can but if they value public trust and their own credibility they would have to give very good reasons for so doing. 

The scope for the public to get behind deliberative democracy is not hypothetical. Unlike Parliament, Government and political parties, trial juries are one of the only traditional institutions that we continue to support and respect, even though from a distance we sometimes find their conclusions surprising. We cleave to the basic principle that these twelve people stand for us and have reached a conclusion which would be the one we would have probably reached in their shoes.

I tried ever so hard when I was in government to persuade colleagues and ministers to use citizens’ juries on difficult issues. But when I patiently explained that the process could not be controlled by them and the outcome not assumed I always lost the argument. In the end I helped create something called the Big Conversation to try to show that the Blair Government was listening to the public. It was better than nothing but it was to a proper citizens’ jury what orange squash is to fresh orange juice.

Back to the present: not only could we have held a citizens’ jury on EU membership, not only could it have been in itself a catalyst for public debate and engagement, but we could even have given the jury a referendum as one of its possible recommendations. If we are going to revivify our democracy to meet the many complex challenges the future will pose we need to find ways to combine different forms of legitimacy.

Not only is the dichotomy between policy by plebiscite and policy by Party control unattractive it’s also completely false. 


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