Should I stay or should I go? Could citizens’ assemblies release the UK from its Brexit deadlock?

If government is of the people, by the people and for the people, it follows that it should talk directly to the people. But how to do that is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. Two and a half years ago, the UK government decided to ask the people a questionshould we leave the EU or stay?

In response, 51.9% said leave. To this day we don’t know if we are leaving or delaying leaving or whether reversing the decision is still an option. The question on the ballot paper did not ask “how do we leave?” What happens if leaving means fewer jobs, more migrant workers, more funding to this region, perhaps less to that one?  Many agree, however, that this process was not a realistic way of going about answering such a complex question.

I am not a fan of referendums right now – after the past two years of watching the worst kind of politics play out, you cannot really blame me. I am still, however, a strong believer in asking people how they feel and what they think should be done about the big issues and sometimes the small ones that can also have a profound impact on our quality of lifeand in some ways offering people the hard choices and trade-offs. So how do we do this and not end up in more of a mess? Is having a citizens’ assembly the answer?

It would appear that members of parliament in the UK, such as Stella Creasy, think so. She believes it is a way out of the mass of confusion caused by politicians and exacerbated by the people and their mixed emotions. At the time of writing, 17 other opposition MPs agree.

President Macron would possibly agree too. I suspect UK MPs have been nudged into this way of thinking by his recent announcement of “le grand débat”, a way to get people to hold debates locally on four key themes.

I am still, however, a strong believer in asking people how they feel and what they think should be done about the big issues and sometimes the small ones that can also have a profound impact on our quality of life


Bringing people up to speed on all the facts takes time

This could, of course, under “normal” circumstances and at times of great presidential popularity be seen as a healthy and selfless act, but these débats are coming in the aftermath of what has been one of the most tumultuous periods of civic action in France’s recent history. It started as a movement led by the activist group, Gilets-Jaunes, and Macron hopes it will all end in collaborative, adult and peaceful discourse across many groups, in as many places as possible, leading to consensus and clarity (and preferably just before the European elections in May). But this has not had the best of starts. Macron chose the issues for debate, and a tax on the super-rich is not one of them. As the debates start, the protests continue. The good news is that the polls show one out of two people are keen to participate. I am not sure that can be said in the UK on a citizens’ assembly. We feel, if anything, a little weary of it all.

Good debates do take time, certainly to bring a whole nation up to speed to hold conversations of the highest quality and with all the facts to hand, and Macron is not spending that time. Time is of the essence with Brexit in the UK toodeadlines are often too short, and this may be a problem when it comes to a complex issue that concerns all of our lives and all of our relationships. Right now in the UK, we don’t think much of deadlines!


We are out of practice at having good conversations in the UK

Local government meetings even those open to all, are not well attended in the UK. They can become captured by self-appointed leaders of communities, and for many faced with one of those seasoned arguers in council meetings, such a debate in public is a scary prospect.

The fact is, we are out of practice in the UK in knowing how to have good conversations and talk honestly about our feelings without fear of being targeted, trolled, followed, called a racist, bigot, sexist, and so on.  

We don’t like talking about how we feel at the best of times, and we certainly don’t trust one another enough to say what we feel out loud.

We would need to encourage people to take part and feel safe doing so.

I admired the work Demos did in asking people to come together and, without fear or identification, say how they felt about major issues that we don’t like to talk about at the dinner table. The issue here is anonymised answers lack transparency.


We need time to make this work

Arguments for more deliberative forms of engagement such as citizen assemblies could be more persuasive. Here, a small number of people, vetted for their views and backgrounds to ensure balance, come together and are given all the facts to debate and ultimately decide on a question or questions. Those people would include expert witnesses and facilitators. One argument against it, however, is that not everyone is involved and we would have to trust those on the juriescertainly if it were to have the final say. However, if what is decided is not binding in any way, many may feel it is just more talk. Failing to make the case well for an assembly can throw into doubt the whole idea and may mean people reject outright what an assembly says, as was the case in Ontario in 2006, with the public rejecting the assembly view on electoral reform.

It seems that people’s decisions and opinions can be overturned by events and by the mere passage of time. Things change, people’s views change, new facts surfacejust two years after Brexit, some people have voiced doubt over their original vote. Last July it was estimated that 1.4m more young people are now eligible to vote. Macron is possibly right, then, to be moving swiftly, even if only because it is politically expedient to do so, but is this really enough time to have the quality debate France needs?


Building a sense of hope is important, it happens all over the world

Brexit is not a yes/no debate any more, it is about our lives so does require a conversation we certainly didn’t have very well before the referendum. Other countries do seem better at it.

All around the world people have been engaging in conversation about their visions for their future, as in Jamaica and with young people recently in Malaysia. From what I have heard, these have been valuable discussions, and have got leaders out of their seats and into rural communities, talking andmore importantlylistening. They have created a sense of unity. In Northern Ireland, citizens’ assemblies have, since last year, been established on an advisory basis and have already discussed social care.

Perhaps the most contentious example of a citizens’ assembly recently (in my part of the world, anyway) has been in the Republic of Ireland on abortion laws. The issue wasand still isemotive, but by the end of the deliberations, the Assembly members overwhelmingly agreed that the constitutional provision for abortion was unfit for purpose. That was after hundreds of submissions and expert briefings on all sides of the argument. This was followed by a referendum whereby people voted to change the status quo. Many said this process felt right.

The exercises in public participation that I have found to be the most successful are those that feel progressive and tap into a mood that is already growing in the country. I am not sure, in the UK,  what mood we are in, other than a thoroughly bad one.


The importance of authenticity

In CPI’s listening projects we asked people around the world how we could strengthen legitimacy. People told us that they wanted authentic connections with leaders and services but that current ways of talking and listening felt very inauthentic, forced and even rushed. We are continuing to listen to people and we are now forming a People’s Panel.

So far we have found that people want to feel government leaders work for them, understand them and value them, and speak to them as equals. Empathy came out strongly in our conversations, with young people especially, and many felt those qualities they said are as important in political leaders as they are in their teachers or doctors. Many told me that engagement has to be authentic and considered, and certainly not led by those who have exacerbated our sense of a legitimacy gap or caused a crisis in the first place. The Five Behaviours to help strengthen legitimacy.

People told us that they wanted authentic connections with leaders and services but that current ways of talking and listening felt very inauthentic, forced and even rushed.


Our society feels broken, we need to discuss that but find positive common ground

Today, the political impasse here in the UK has mirrored the nation’s feeling of being stuck and very much divided. Even within families, there are polarised views, and dinners have erupted into full-on stand-offs. We are broken and we don’t know how to discuss it. I worry that if our only recent living memory of a citizens’ assembly ends up being on such a toxic issue, this could leave a sour taste in our mouths for such methods of participation forever more. If we can make an assembly work well however on an issue this hard to crack, it could restore our faith in one another.

An extension to Article 50 might help the timing issue, but so too would more positive behaviours from leaders who have not shown us how to debate, or how the discussion should be conducted. Whatever we do, let’s ensure we talk on a more positive subject, such as the country we want to build after we emerge from the rubble that is what binds us rather than simply focus on the country our leaders are trying to fix.