The full report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was launched last week with well-attended events in parliament and at UCL. Speakers included members of the project team, two Assembly members, an MP and leading EU experts. Hannah Dowling and Kelly Shuttleworth report on what was said.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit gathered together 50 members of the public, who were broadly representative of the UK population in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum. They met over two weekends in September to deliberate on what kind of Brexit they wanted to see.
On 13 December, events were held in parliament and at UCL to launch the Assembly’s full report and to discuss the recommendations the Assembly reached. At both events Dr Alan Renwick, the Director of the Assembly, gave a quick introduction to what the Citizens’ Assembly entailed, outlining the two key aims of the project. These were, firstly, to provide evidence on informed and considered public opinion on the form that Brexit should take, and secondly, to gather evidence on the value of deliberative processes in the UK.
The Assembly members considered two key aspects of the future UK–EU relationship: trade and migration. The majority of members of the Assembly wanted to pursue a close, bespoke relationship with the EU. If such an agreement proved impossible, the majority of members preferred the option of the UK staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union rather than leaving the EU with no deal on future relations. This is a significant recommendation considering the current rhetoric from some Brexit supporters on the possibility of no deal.
Present to speak about the Assembly from different perspectives were Sarah Allan, Suella Fernandes MP, Professor Anand Menon, Professor Catherine Barnard and two members of the Assembly.
Sarah Allan, the Head of Engagement at Involve, was the Design and Facilitation Lead for the Citizens’ Assembly. She opened by defining ‘deliberative engagement’ as people discussing a topic with one another and considering different views in order to reach a conclusion. In the case of events like the Citizens’ Assembly, it can also include expert information and speakers.
Allan then addressed why deliberative exercises, such as the Citizens’ Assembly, should be encouraged. She noted that the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit’s conclusions reflect the informed opinions of a representative cross-section of the population. Most importantly, the Assembly explored what people’s priorities are and why they hold them, with the ‘why’ often being just as important for policy-makers as the ‘what’. Discussing trade-offs can build understanding of the political process and enhance appreciation of exactly how complex a set of decisions are, or how constrained budget decisions can be.
To show how this could be put into action, Allan explained some of the crucial design principles that sat behind the Citizens’ Assembly.
- Matching scope, output, and time: ensuring that the deliberation could be fitted into two weekends in a meaningful way.
- Making the process accessible: being very clear about roles and agendas, and not assuming any prior knowledge. It also involved keeping the discussion groups small enough to ensure the members were confident in speaking.
- Make the process enjoyable: agreeing guidelines for discussion, having professional facilitators present, and employing a seating plan.
Sarah Allan left the audience with one final thought, which was that these design principles could equally apply to citizens’ assemblies on any other key policy decision facing the UK, such as how to fund social care.
Suella Fernandes MP
Conservative MP Suella Fernandes, who campaigned to leave the European Union, spoke at the parliamentary launch event. Thanking those involved in the ‘brilliant project’, Fernandes praised the opportunity for the public to be involved in this historic event. She noted that the ‘very rigorous, extensive, and robust’ processes mean that the recommendations of the Assembly carry substantial weight. Of the report, she said, ‘I definitely hope it doesn’t languish in some cellar and that more politicians do read it, that those in government take note of it, and that it does have an impact, because I think it’s absolutely essential that we’re all involved in this historic process that we’re going through as a country.’
Fernandes went on to speak about the complexity of trade and the importance of enhancing public understanding of the issues involved. She concurred with the Assembly’s recommendation of a bespoke trade deal and spoke about how she was optimistic about the chances of one being struck. The exciting prospect now, she believed, was for everyone to engage in what that trade model will look like, as the Citizens’ Assembly did.
Fernandes then commented on migration, and on how interesting she found the Citizens’ Assembly outcome in favour of retaining free movement. She remarked that this tended to dispel the myth that the Leave vote was motivated mainly by fears of immigration, but noted that people do want some control over it. She mentioned how much she was looking forward to reading more on this deliberation in the full report.
In concluding, Fernandes reiterated how pleased she was to support the Citizens’ Assembly, and how she hopes that it will inspire similar initiatives to involve the public more deeply in the political process.
Ten members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit were able to attend the launch events, and two of them – Molly Rose and Jon Parish – spoke from the podium. Molly talked about how refreshing it was to hear facts rather than the ‘one-sided’ views which she felt had been presented during the referendum campaign. She praised the diversity of the Assembly, both in terms of demographic factors as well as the range of opinions amongst the members, which made her think critically about her own perspective. Molly expressed how she was initially worried that, as a Leave voter, her views might be knocked down. However, she instead felt that all Assembly members tried hard to respect each other’s views and that they were all able to think about their priorities and weigh up possible trade-offs.
Jon said that part of the attraction of the Citizens’ Assembly was being able to escape the ‘echo chamber’ and meet people from a variety of different backgrounds. Jon noted that he enjoyed hearing from expert speakers and particularly appreciated the chance to question them directly. He also spoke about the usefulness of the briefing papers and commended how helpful the neutral facilitators were in enhancing the quality of discussion. Prior to taking part in the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, Jon said he had felt frustrated that there was no space for nuance during the EU referendum, but he concluded that the Assembly had been a ‘wonderful opportunity to respectfully and constructively engage in discussion’.
Professor Anand Menon
Professor Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe, spoke about how the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has a real opportunity to influence policy makers, since there is still ‘everything to play for’ in the Brexit negotiations. He stated that the government continues to have no clear view on the kind of deal that they wish to strike with the EU, and, although the recent agreement has been reported as a deal, he explained that it is more of a ‘progress report’. Although MPs are under tremendous pressure from various parliamentary forces, he said they remain desperate to know what the general public think about Brexit.
Menon thus argued that the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit can accomplish two crucial functions. Firstly, it can provide much needed information to MPs at a time when polling is looking increasingly unreliable due to the volatility of the electorate. Secondly, the results of the Assembly offer an important insight into which trade-offs members of the public are prepared to make, since polling cannot easily give a good indication of what concessions people will accept on an issue as complex as Brexit. Accordingly, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit can have an important role to play in the current political climate.
Professor Catherine Barnard
Professor Catherine Barnard also spoke about the importance of the Citizens’ Assembly in allowing people to gather information about complex issues. She said that, before the referendum, there was deep unease about immigration and a ‘visceral sense that immigration was out of control’ among many members of the general public. The Leave campaign built on these feelings with calls to ‘take back control’ of the UK’s borders. However, Barnard argued that such claims were misleading about the ease and responsibilities of controlling immigration, as immigration is largely decided by employers and landlords, rather than by officials at the UK borders.
Barnard set out the two clearest options for migration: the Norwegian model (remaining part of the European Economic Area) and the Canadian model. Staying in the EEA would mean the UK would keep freedom of movement, but would have an ‘emergency brake’ on immigration. The Citizens’ Assembly clearly favoured this option, yet the government has insisted that the general public did not vote to stay in the Single Market. Thus, Barnard emphasised that there is a striking disparity between what the government think people want, and what a representative sample of the population agreed.
The results of the Citizens’ Assembly provide much-needed information on what kind of Brexit the public want when they have the opportunity for informed reflection, as well as offering a possible model for the use of Citizens’ Assemblies on contentious issues in the future. At these two launch events there has been great interest shown by both parliamentarians and members of the public, and it is hoped that the results of the Citizens’ Assembly will continue to spread and influence policy-makers. The voices and recommendations of the Assembly members deserve to be heard.
You can read the full report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit at this link.
About the speakers
Dr Alan Renwick is the Director of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, and the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.
Sarah Allan is the Design and Facilitation Lead for the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, and Engagement Lead at Involve, the Citizen’s Assembly’s delivery partner.
Suella Fernandes is the Conservative MP for Fareham, and the Chair of the Brexit-supporting European Research Group.
Molly Rose and Jon Parish were members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit.
Anand Menon is the Director of UK in a Changing Europe, and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs.
Catherine Barnard is Professor of European Union Law at the University of Cambridge.
About the authors
Hannah Dowling and Kelly Shuttleworth are Research Volunteers at the Constitution Unit.