The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has just published its first report. Building on findings previously reported on this blog, it sets out how the Citizens’ Assembly operated and what conclusions it reached. Alan Renwick offers a summary and gives a foretaste of the work that is still to come in ensuring that policy-makers can hear what the members of the Assembly have to say.
The public would prefer the UK to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union than do no deal on future relations with the EU. Some politicians might be talking tough, but that is not what their voters actually want.
This is the core message that comes through the summary report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, which was published yesterday. Recent weeks have seen increasing talk among some politicians and commentators about the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. But when voters in the Citizens’ Assembly heard the arguments and facts on all sides, they viewed remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union as preferable to simply walking away without a deal.
What is the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit?
As explained in detail in the report, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was held over two weekends in September 2017. It brought together 50 randomly selected citizens who reflected the diversity of the UK electorate, including a majority who supported the Leave option in the referendum last year. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through its UK in a Changing Europe programme. It aims to provide much needed, robust public input into the Brexit process and to show the value of informed and in-depth public engagement on controversial areas of public policy.
The Assembly addressed the question of what form its members would like Brexit to take. We did not attempt to reopen the issue of whether Brexit should happen. Rather, we sought to learn about informed public preferences for the Brexit negotiations that are currently taking place.
During the two weekends, the members considered their own priorities and those of their fellow participants, heard from and questioned experts with widely varying perspectives on the best way forward, and drew on balanced briefing papers that had been vetted by an Advisory Board of Leavers, Remainers, and neutral professionals. The members then deliberated in depth among themselves, aided by independent facilitators who ensured that everyone’s voice was heard and respected.
Finally, the members voted. Most supported the kind of bespoke trade deal between the UK and the EU that the government is pursuing, maintaining substantially free trade and avoiding the need for physical customs checks on the border. Should such a deal prove unattainable, however, substantial majorities preferred the UK to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union over leaving without a trade deal. On migration – in contrast to the general tenor of public debate – most members wanted free movement of labour between the UK and the EU to continue. But they also wanted the UK to use its existing ability under EU rules to limit the costs of immigration – such as by removing EU migrants who cannot sustain themselves financially, training British workers more effectively to avoid labour shortages, and boosting public services in areas where immigration is high.
What comes next?
The members of the Citizens’ Assembly worked their socks off over the two weekends when they met, listening, speaking, and reflecting for many hours on numerous complex, interlocking issues. They have done their job incredibly well. Now it is up to policy-makers to give their conclusions the considered attention that they deserve.
The Citizens’ Assembly offers by far the deepest insight we have into informed public opinion on the current Brexit options. Nowhere else can we see so clearly the views of regular citizens who have reflected on their own priorities and those of others, interrogated the arguments, and considered carefully the potential options. We can take from the Assembly that the public are not bursting to break free of EU shackles at all costs. They do not tend towards extreme positions. Rather, they want the government to act reasonably and with moderation and do all it can to protect the economy, jobs, and public services.
I am therefore delighted that politicians from across the political spectrum are taking an interest in what the Citizens’ Assembly has to say. Next week I shall discuss the Assembly’s conclusions with the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the future of immigration policy. Next month, my colleagues and I will speak with the EU Committee of the House of Lords. We are planning several events in London and beyond at which policy-makers and other interested stakeholders will be able to hear not just from me, but also from Assembly members themselves. Next month, we plan to publish a full report that sets out the processes within the Assembly in much greater detail than we have been able to offer so far.
Brexit constitutes the most important set of public policy decisions in the UK for generations. That it should be subject to ongoing democratic discussion and influence is vital. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit deserves to have a central place in that. My colleagues and I will do all we can in the coming weeks and months to ensure this happens.
You can read the summary report from the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit at this link.
About the author
Dr Alan Renwick is the Director of the Citizens’ Assembly of Brexit, and the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.