With just two months until exit day, it remains unclear what form Brexit will take. Could citizens’ assemblies provide some of the answers to the questions politicians have yet to resolve? Alan Renwick outlines the scenarios in which a citizens’ assembly could take place, and what it would need to be a success.
The idea that a citizens’ assembly could help resolve the Brexit impasse is picking up wide support. A diverse group of notable figures proposed it just before Christmas. MPs including Labour’s Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas have backed it. So too has the Guardian newspaper. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has put forward a plan for citizens’ assemblies as part of ‘a process of nationwide consultation and reflection’, which was endorsed in a post on this blog last week.
That citizens’ assemblies are gaining support as a way of reinvigorating our democracy is enormously welcome. A citizens’ assembly is a group of around 50–200 people who are randomly selected from the general public to reflect the make-up of the population as a whole. They meet over several weekends to learn about and deliberate on a policy question before reaching recommendations. As an excellent piece by Leo Benedictus in last week’s Guardian illustrates, such assemblies enable serious, informed reflection on important policy matters by members of the public. They foster conversations among people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives who normally wouldn’t even meet each other. If they are integrated effectively into the wider policy-making process, they can transform the quality of public debate and decision-making.
This was seen most potently last year, in Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly and subsequent referendum on abortion. The assembly shed fresh, clear light on what had been a highly divisive issue, enabling considered, informed debate during the referendum campaign. That assemblies can generate quality discussion and engagement has repeatedly been demonstrated here in the UK too – by two pilot assemblies held in Sheffield and Southampton in 2015, by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit organised by the Constitution Unit and partners in 2017, and last year by the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care – the UK’s first official assembly of this kind – and the Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland. Continue reading