Is the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit a citizens’ assembly at all?

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, held over two weekends in the autumn, brought together a representative sample of the population to discuss the form Brexit should take with respect to immigration and trade. But, as an unofficial body in contrast to past and present assemblies in Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland, should it really be classed as a proper citizens’ assembly? Graham Smith argues that it meets the most pertinent criteria and therefore should enter the small, but select, pantheon of genuine citizens’ assemblies.

What counts as a ‘citizens’ assembly’? The bar seems to have been set pretty high by the original assemblies in British Columbia (2003), Ontario (2006/7) and the Netherlands (2006), in which 104 to 160 randomly selected citizens met for between 10 and 12 weekends to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on whether new electoral systems ought to be introduced. The current Irish Citizens’ Assembly is running over 16 months, with 99 citizens coming together for 11 weekends working on a range of issues, including abortion, climate change and fixed-term parliaments. In all cases, the assemblies have been sponsored by political authorities.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) brought 50 randomly selected citizens together over two weekends in September 2017 to learn, deliberate and make recommendations about trade and immigration policy post-Brexit. But is it too small, too short and too far removed from official decision making processes to be thought of as a ‘proper’ citizens’ assembly?

Are there hard and fast rules here on numbers, length of service and political sponsorship? Are these the characteristics that define a citizens’ assembly as a particular form of deliberative mini-public? It is critical to have standards for different forms of engagement to ensure quality, although it is positive for democratic experimentation and innovation that no one has attempted yet to copyright ‘citizens’ assemblies’ as James Fishkin has done for deliberative polls.

Let us take the relationship with official decision making first. One of the features of previous citizens’ assemblies – and many other deliberative mini-publics – is that their charge is set by those with political authority. This no doubt limits what citizens’ assemblies are asked to work on, but couples them closely to the formal political process. While the Irish Citizens’ Assembly has shown that they can work on the most controversial topics – in this case abortion – this was an issue where the government was glad to pass the buck to a group of citizens. In the UK, this is not the case. The government has not developed a structured approach to engaging citizens on the question of what Brexit should look like. Does that mean a citizens’ assembly should not be organised where there is no explicit sponsorship by political authorities? Surely not. Surely a citizens’ assembly can be used as an intervention by those outside circles of political power in an attempt to change the terms of debate and bring citizens’ voices to bear.

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