This interview is based on a conversation which the authors had on December 17, 2019 in the immediate aftermath of the UK general election. It has been revised and updated from the original transcript.
Rosemary Bechler (RB): Following the general election in 2019, for the first time in nearly four years we are clear what ‘Brexit means’– a hard Brexit, with no opportunity for comment on the trade deal with the EU previously promised to the parliamentarians, and an end to the parliamentary privileges that kept a ‘soft Brexit’ on the Westminster table, even if never allowed anywhere near a public debate.
We are being warned that all the institutions that might threaten to hamper or challenge the progress of this executive will be radically overhauled, including the judiciary, the civil service, press and broadcasting and so on. Do you feel that we may come to see British parliamentary democracy as one of the main casualties of this chapter in our history?
Stuart White (SW): Given that Boris Johnson has a large parliamentary majority, I agree that the immediate effect is to weaken parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit and other issues and I think that is to the detriment of democracy. The Covid-19 crisis we are now experiencing (March 2020) also makes this clear: the Johnson government is about to legislate an emergency Conavirus Bill which has many worrying features. It will very likely be able to rely on its large majority to push this through the UK Parliament with a minimum of effective scrutiny.
There is, however, an underlying philosophical issue here to focus on. This concerns the relationship between the UK Parliament and the ‘people’ or popular sovereignty. There is a narrative which says we had a referendum on Brexit as an exercise in popular sovereignty. That has a normative priority over what Parliament thinks. Parliament’s job is basically to execute what the people have decided in a referendum.
Now I agree that the principle of popular sovereignty has normative priority in this way. However, it is crucial to see that this can still leave a big role for the UK Parliament in determining how to execute the thing the people have voted for in a referendum. And an important feature of the referendum in 2016 was that it was not a vote for any specific form of Brexit. Therefore there was – and is – a perfectly legitimate role for the UK Parliament to debate what form Brexit should take, to scrutinise the government, to hold it to account.
An important feature of the referendum in 2016 was that it was not a vote for any specific form of Brexit.
So a lot of the rhetoric that we have heard about Parliament ‘subverting the will of the people’ is an opportunistic exploitation of the idea of popular sovereignty rather than a principled application of it. It is perfectly consistent with the principle of popular sovereignty for Parliament to hold the government to account about the form of Brexit that should be pursued. On the other hand, it certainly was undemocratic deploying tricks like trying to prorogue Parliament in order to get a particular form of Brexit through (as Johnson attempted in September 2019).
The key point is that even if one accepts philosophically, as I do, that normatively we should be in a regime based on popular sovereignty rather than ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’, parliaments still have a crucial function to play. Being deliberative, being critical, being contestatory in relation to the government of the day is a crucial part of that. So any attempt to close Parliament down just does not follow from the underlying philosophy of popular sovereignty.
Some have said that the 2019 general election result brings the UK Parliament into line with the popular will and what people voted for in 2016. But the UK parliamentary majority for Johnson is an artefact of the electoral system. The Conservatives got 43.6% of the popular vote. A majority of people who voted in the election actually voted for parties that are ’Remain’ or supported a second referendum. So the fact that we have a UK Parliament that has such a strong majority for Brexit, making it possible for the government to plough on without proper parliamentary scrutiny, is not a reflection of the will of the people in the 2019 election, but the product of a particularly problematic electoral system.
The common good
RB: So let’s come back to the philosophical concept of popular sovereignty. Why is it that a numerical majority – not very decisive as you point out either in these latest 2019 elections or in the 52% vs. 48% referendum result of 2016 – constitutes that popular sovereignty? Is it the case that we have to have a unitary will for popular sovereignty, and if so, how could we achieve this without completely discounting the will of the losers or, as you say, variation among the winners? Was I wrong to imagine from the slim majority of the referendum result of 2016, for example, that the popular will and the democratic result was in favour of a soft Brexit of some kind best determined by the parliamentarians?
SW: We certainly need to interrogate this notion of ‘popular sovereignty’, think about what it means, and how it should be institutionalised. In what follows, I’ll refer to what I see as an emerging ‘Brexiteer’ view of the UK constitution. I think this ‘Brexiteer’ view gives a distinctive place to popular sovereignty, one that marks a difference with traditional British constitutionalism. But I think it is a deeply flawed way of thinking about popular sovereignty.
What I am calling the ‘Brexiteer’ view equates popular sovereignty with the referendum and treats the criterion for success in a referendum as a simple majority of votes cast – 52% is bigger than 48%. Popular sovereignty is more complicated than this
52% is bigger than 48%. Popular sovereignty is more complicated than this.
It might help to pause and go back to some of the political philosophy that has shaped contemporary theories of democracy and popular sovereignty, such as Rousseau’s Social Contract. For Rousseau, popular sovereignty isn’t just numerical, it isn’t just about a majority willing something. There is also the idea of the will being oriented towards a common good. What Rousseau calls the ‘general will’ is properly sovereign, and this is a will that both comes from all citizens (they are included in the process of determining it) and which they can in principle all affirm because it wills what is for the good of all not just the good of a specific person or group.
Now one can derive from this the idea that a genuine exercise in popular sovereignty involves not just a counting of votes, but also a process of public deliberation that is oriented towards the common good. (There’s a debate about how far Rousseau himself was at all keen on public deliberation. But I’m focusing on what others have built on his foundations rather than his theory specifically.) In other words, what matters is the deliberative quality of the process that generates the final vote, not just the final vote itself.
This then points us towards questions about how we structure the process for getting to a final vote and a final decision. It may well be that referendums are part of the process, but this is where I think that Citizens’ Assemblies - as explained by John Grant in this openDemocracy article - potentially come in as mechanisms to try and promote a more deliberative exercise of popular sovereignty.
One problem in the way popular sovereignty as currently conceived by many, such as most Brexiteers, is that it doesn’t take on board this crucial deliberative element. There is no thought about how to institutionalise the deliberative popular will.
But there’s also a second, related problem with the way Brexiteers often picture popular sovereignty.
In modern democratic constitutionalist thought, the exercise of popular sovereignty is often related to the creation (and revision) of a codified constitution that sets limits on what the government and the parliament of the day can legitimately do. In this tradition, we distinguish between what Bruce Ackerman calls (in his book, We, The People) ‘ordinary politics’ and ‘constitutional politics’. Normal or ordinary politics is the politics of voting for representatives who then make policy through a parliament within the framework of a codified constitution. The constitution itself is made and potentially amended by ‘We the People’.
So you have an exercise of popular sovereignty to create a constitution, and then you have a more mediated exercise of popular sovereignty through representatives making policy within that constitution. You also have the possibility – at least in a well-designed constitution – of the people returning politics at moments to its constitutional level to amend the constitution, for example as the people of the Republic of Ireland have recently done through referendums on same-sex marriage (2015) and abortion (2018).
In Brexiteer philosophy, however, popular sovereignty is not linked to a codified constitution, but brought in alongside an unrevised notion of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, where there is no higher law to which Parliament is subject and that constrains what Parliament can do. In the ideology around Brexit you get this detaching of popular sovereignty from constitutionalism, which I think carries dangers….
RB: Like a much stronger, less scrutinised executive….
SW: Yes, we have seen how, for Brexiteers, the executive becomes the bearer of the ‘popular will’ against a supposedly resistant Parliament.
It’s helpful to go back to A.V. Dicey. His textbook, The Law of the Constitution, is seen as the classic statement of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. But in this book Dicey makes an intriguing distinction between the ‘legal sovereign’ and the ‘political sovereign’. Parliament is the legal sovereign in the sense that there is no body higher than Parliament that can call into question the legality of what Parliament decides – Parliament is not subject to any kind of higher law. But at the same time ‘the people’ are the political sovereign – the force in society that ultimately has to be obeyed. Dicey also argues that the constitution is not just the law but informal conventions. Further, he argues that the main purpose of the conventions is to help to subordinate Parliament – the legal sovereign – to the people – the political sovereign.
RB: What sort of rules is he talking about?
SW: He refers to informal rules about when ministers and governments have to resign, which serve to keep government accountable to MPs and keep Parliament as a whole accountable to the electorate.
Right now, though, I think it is interesting to consider whether the referendum has become the focus of a new convention in UK politics, and in Dicey’s terms, a way of empowering the ‘political sovereign’ of the people over the ‘legal sovereign’ of Parliament.
I think it is interesting to consider whether the referendum has become the focus of a new convention in UK politics
There’s a way of conceptualising where the UK constitution has got to that we might call Diceyan populism. I’ve tried to set this out, in a preliminary way, in an article for Red Pepper. It holds that on certain matters the UK Parliament is obliged, as a matter of convention (not law), to turn a decision over to the people through referendum. In this way it affirms a version of popular sovereignty. But – in contrast to the democratic constitutionalism I sketched earlier – this view still asserts the legal sovereignty of Parliament, and so doesn’t have any truck with the idea of a codified constitution that legally constrains Parliament. This, at any rate, is one way of making sense of the way Brexiteers, like David Davis MP, seem to want to say that we are in a regime of both popular and parliamentary sovereignty!
(Dicey himself, I should say, was keen to introduce referendums into the UK’s political system. But he thought of them only as brakes on Parliamentary initiative. He saw referendums as a ‘People’s Veto’. But Dicey did not support using referendums to force Parliament to do things for which there is no majority in Parliament itself.)
So to sum up, I’ve made two points about ‘popular sovereignty’. First, popular sovereignty has to involve deliberation and not just voting. It needs to be institutionalised in a way that reflects this. Second, popular sovereignty needs to be related to creating – and amending – a codified constitution, to a domain of ‘constitutional’ politics that sets rules for the more usual world of ‘ordinary politics’. In contemporary Brexiteer thinking, however, popular sovereignty is seen neither as essentially deliberative nor as essentially linked to a codified constitution, a higher law that is entrenched and binding on Parliament.
I haven’t, however, answered the critical point you raised about the ‘unitariness’ of popular sovereignty!
A unitary people's will and authoritarian regimes
RB: Yes I’d like to come back to that, picking up your point about referendums becoming a new ‘convention’ in the Diceyan sense. If indeed we are to see a new convention emerging from the use of referendums as in 2016, it doesn’t seem to enshrine popular sovereignty (or popular anything) in a new way over parliamentary sovereignty, but rather a much stronger executive over both. What happened the day after that referendum, was that the people and Parliament were told ’Brexit means Brexit’, thereby suspending the entire debate, despite the fact that only now, years later, has anyone been able to hazard a guess at what Brexit probably does mean – now that there is no chance of regulatory alignment, all the options that were still perfectly possible a short while ago, but simply are not today.
Of course, over that time a battle has been going on about how hard that Brexit had to be. But it wasn’t the people who won that battle, was it, but the media, the Establishment institutions and processes that have stood in for deliberative popular sovereignty. This has only served to enhance the power of the executive, hasn’t it? Didn’t the Conservative Party precisely plan to create a ‘new convention’ that would steer very clear indeed of popular sovereignty?
SW: There is in an immediate and important sense much more stability for the executive in relation to the UK Parliament because Johnson has got a large majority. But we are still in a situation where the SNP swept Scotland, and the nationalist vote in Northern Ireland was greater than the Unionist vote. So I think there are still major constitutional challenges with lots of opportunities for deliberative democracy in terms of how we address them. The idea of holding a citizens’-led Constitutional Convention on the future of UK or post-UK democracy, for example, is still highly relevant.
RB: Is that likely as well as relevant?
SW: As a government-sponsored process over the next few years, no I don’t think it is likely at all. The government, if it looks at the constitution – and it looks as if they are interested in doing that – will probably press ahead on its own and almost certainly won’t use these kinds of deliberative methods or use them in a way that I would like to see.
But there is at least one initiative – the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy – which is independent of government. This can still go ahead at some point, and depending on how much it is able to engage the public’s interest, the process can feed into a longer-term process of constitutional reform, maybe doing some groundwork for a future reforming government that would put government backing behind a constitutional convention process.
RB: Scotland will be continuing with its Future of Scotland Citizens’ Assembly series, I imagine?
SW: Yes, though its work has been interrupted by the Covid-19 crisis. And the Climate Assembly UK, a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change at the UK level, is another interesting development, though again it has had to stop for the moment due to Covid-19. And if we return to the government’s Coronavirus Bill of March 2020, there is a strong case for building in something like a Citizens’ Jury as a body that can review the legislation periodically to help assess if the emergency powers it creates are still justified.
But it’s important to take a closer look at the idea of the ‘Citizens’ Assembly’. The idea is actually very ambiguous and its political, constitutional significance can vary a lot depending on how the ambiguities are unpacked. Some key questions are: Who sets the assembly up? Who sets its’ agenda? Who decides what happens to its’ proposals?
Imagine a Citizens’ Assembly is set up at the initiative of politicians to pursue an agenda wholly chosen by the politicians and that all of the recommendations go back to the politicians to decide what to do. This Citizens’ Assembly might be a useful consultation device, but it is not one that necessarily advances the expression of popular sovereignty or involves much empowerment of the public. This model of a Citizens’ Assembly can fit easily enough into authoritarian regimes.
So, while Citizens’ Assemblies are very good deliberative mechanisms in and of themselves, we do have to think about how they fit into the wider political system. Are they just being used as a consultation mechanism by a political elite, or are they a mechanism of popular empowerment – potentially against the elite? Although I don’t expect much in the way of Citizens’ Assemblies from the Johnson Government, if they take this purely consultative form they don’t necessarily challenge the power of those in government very much.
RB: But if they contained anything deliberative wouldn’t they still be going in exactly the opposite direction from this new ‘convention’ we are talking about, grounded in the notion of a unitary people’s will? Couldn’t one say that to that extent they offer a demonstrable mechanism for an alternative path which is about the empowerment of people, so that they can address the common good.
One reason why I have become so interested in the challenge to the status quo posed by these deliberative mechanisms is that I was taken aback at how little the opposition in Parliament was able to articulate, for the purposes of public engagement, the attack on deliberative democracy that they were undergoing month after month after the Brexit referendum. This must be to do with the general absence of awareness of this democratic core from our everyday vocabularies, mustn’t it? People throw around their definition of democracy without the least sense of its dependence on a healthy deliberative element. Would you agree that this literacy is vital if there is to be any deeper public engagement in these matters?
SW: Yes. Could Brexit have been handled in a different way, one that would have encouraged the deliberative sensibility you refer to?
In principle, a government could have said in 2016: ‘We have just had this referendum. It was a very narrow decision to leave. We are going to honour the decision to leave, but at the same time, because this has been so divisive, we want to try and move forward in a way that speaks to the concerns of the 48%.’ One can see here a potential application of Danielle S. Allen’s idea of ‘political friendship’, set out in her book, Talking to Strangers, which emphasises the importance of citizens honouring and reciprocating one anothers’ sacrifices as losers in political contests.
This might then have led to some sort of Citizens’ Assembly of the kind that the UCL Constitution Unit organised, where they had 48% Remainers and 52% Leavers using the assembly to identify some principles and guidelines for the form that Brexit should take. Or, a Citizens’ Assembly could have considered whether there ought to be a second referendum on any final deal. But the Citizens’ Assembly didn’t come into discussions seriously until very late on in the Brexit process – really too late given the timescale that is needed.
And to do the job that we are thinking of – of building a wider deliberative sensibility – it would have to be the focus of popular commentary and able to take the wider public on its journey, so that when its proposals emerge they have credibility and legitimacy within that wider public.
One of the potential problems of the Citizens’ Assembly as a model is that while it looks as if we know how to construct a quality deliberation for the citizens who are in the Assembly, it is not so clear how to carry this out into the wider public sphere. This is a serious challenge, I think.
RB: But this was never called for by anyone in Opposition until as you say, far too late, when it looked like a desperate way of simply avoiding Brexit altogether… But had canny democrats been in the ascendancy earlier on, would it ever have been enough to call for one overarching Citizens’ Assembly, for a rich debate over what kind of Brexit people either really wanted or were willing to live with? Given the incomplete devolution of democracy in the islands of the UK and the problems bequeathed by this that as you point out are now set to cause considerably more instability after these elections, wouldn’t we have had to have called for a Citizens’ Assembly in every region of England and every nation of the UK if we were to get to first base on empowering people?
SW: This comes back to who are ‘the people’ when we talk about popular sovereignty. There is a question here about how we think of UK democracy. If we think of the Ukanian model (to use Tom Nairn’s term), there is a people of the UK. Therefore, at least on certain issues, we can just have one Citizens’ Assembly at the UK level to deal with issues that are particular to this UK-level people or demos.
But there is another model that is more plausible, which is to recognise that the UK is a multinational, even – in terms of where could go – federal, construct. There are also arguably important regional differences within England. So you need to think of the UK more as a collection of peoples, rather than as a unitary people or as merely a unitary people.
You need to think of the UK more as a collection of peoples, rather than as a unitary people or as merely a unitary people.
This connects with one of my disagreements with the Citizens Convention on UK Democracy. If you accept this second, federalist model, any Citizens’ Assembly process, even if it is addressed to an issue at the UK level, has to go through the nations and regions. You can’t just gather people only at the UK level. The maths reinforces the point. If you have a 50-person Citizens’ Assembly at the UK level and you represent the nations on a proportionate basis, you are going to have an assembly that is overwhelmingly English. So yes, in principle, Citizens’ Assembly processes should come from the nations and regions. Of course there is then a big question about how you proceed to aggregate the outcomes. Having got a range of voices from the different nations and regions, how do you pull that together? I think this challenge is what deterred the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy from going the federalist route. But, as I’ve argued before, the ‘Ukanian’ alternative is undesirable and anachronistic.
RB: Perhaps you would have to move away from ‘yes’ or ‘no’-type assembly questions, to assemblies that looked instead at prioritising a set of issues that mattered to each nation and region, so that those who take decisions are obliged to be seen to take into account and reconcile as many of these priorities as they can? Of course this wouldn’t give you the same direct sense of empowerment as an Irish Citizens’ Assembly recommendation leading directly to a successful referendum result.
It would take you away from winner-take-all in the tugs of war which we have, in the direction of less ‘clarity’ and more complexity. But such a process may well have arrived at much better, more considered and relevant judgments, and much more civil outcomes than our ongoing divisions.
However – it wouldn’t have been quick. And couldn’t even pretend to ‘get Brexit done’. Brexit is such a stark example of the conflict between a politics which yearns for closure via a strong man willing to break all the rules if necessary on our behalf, and a politics which was saying, “Please let’s take at least seven years if necessary to get this right, please let’s have a proper discussion, listen to each other, talk civilly”. Aren’t these two diametrically opposed notions of what politics is? Do you think that deliberative democracy is simply too slow a politics for our roller-coaster times?
SW: This brings us back to your point earlier about whether there is enough of a deliberative sensibility in UK, or maybe English, politics. I was talking to a friend who is a Leave voter before the 2019 general election. In his view, if Johnson didn’t get a big majority and we ended up again with a hung Parliament, it would be ‘back to the playground.’ So in his view the Parliament we had 2017-19, which I would see as in many ways a great Parliament – one willing to reassert itself against the executive – was a ‘playground’. The deliberative, contestatory qualities of this Parliament amounted to a time-wasting ‘playground’.
And the Covid-19 crisis we are now in (March 2020) tends to reinforce this perspective. ‘We’re in a crisis! Let’s not argue! Let’s not have politics!’ To which we must reply, as Adam Ramsay has done, that a crisis like this is a highly political moment, one in which crucial choices get made, and it is vital that we openly and fully debate and contest these choices.
A crisis like this is a highly political moment, one in which crucial choices get made, and it is vital that we openly and fully debate and contest these choices.
The aversion I am describing is connected, perhaps, with the traditional UK model of what democracy is, which often comes up in the way that people defend ‘First Past the Post’ as an electoral system: ‘Well, it’s decisive. It turns small shifts in public opinion into much bigger changes in MPs in the party shares of seats in parliament. So it gives you these majorities for one party and that gives you a decisiveness.’
So, there is something in the British, or maybe more the English political culture, where the dominant democratic model of politics is that you take a vote and there are winners and losers and the winners then do what they want. Contestation – beyond the routine of PM’s Questions and the like – is a sign that things aren’t really going well… that we are ‘in the playground’…
RB: Yes, that we are in danger of being infantilised by having to remain vulnerable to other people with different ideas…
SW: Although we are often told about the Mother of Parliaments with its heroic Parliamentary debates, actually the British state tradition doesn’t like too much deliberation or contestation. It likes there to be a clear centre of authority…
RB: Who is a winner, and who equally importantly isn’t a loser… this gambling metaphor which seems to me so central to the way we conduct our elections…
SW: I distinguished between British and English in what I said a moment ago because the experience of the devolved Parliament and assemblies, which are elected under versions of Proportional Representation, seems more discursive, a way of doing politics where there isn’t necessarily always a clear winner in the traditional Westminster sense.
This model of politics, where there has to be constant negotiation and alliance-building is much more the norm in other EU nations of course. The idea that democratic politics exists to empower a winner to do everything that they want, regardless of others, is not the norm.
I think, finally, I’ve come back to your point about the questionable ‘unitariness’ of the ‘people’s will’! Disagreement, contestation, and negotiation are healthy to democracy, part of its very essence, and yet the UK’s model of democracy is in some ways highly averse to them.
Process – towards people’s engagement
RB: In the Brexit process, would you agree that one of the frustrating features was the way that the organised Remainers, regularly castigated nowadays for their cosmopolitan openness to the Other, nevertheless completely failed to identify what in these two models of politics would really be on their side? They joined in the tug-of-war with relish, went for a winner-take-all outcome and lost the whole gamble, didn’t they?
SW: My sense of the Leave and Remain camps is that they have both been outcome oriented, and not that reflective or even concerned about process.
If we start with Remain, my sense of the Remain position throughout was of a concern to find a lever, any lever, to pull to stop Brexit. The outcome was what mattered, not how you got there.
This reached a climax for me with the People’s Vote March in March 2019. This was a march for a second referendum, a march calling for Brexit to be determined by an exercise of popular sovereignty. But in the week leading up to the demonstration there was a petition calling the UK Parliament to Revoke Article 50 and for the UK to stay in the EU. So this was a call for Brexit to be resolved by an exercise of parliamentary sovereignty: this needn’t be put to the people. Parliament has the legitimate authority to decide by itself.
On the demonstration there were people with placards that basically said ‘I want either a second referendum or Revoke Article 50!’ Some people were so outcome-oriented, and willing to reach for any lever to get the desired outcome, that they didn’t see a problem in making these two demands simultaneously. (I was on the march; I did not sign the petition!)
But the Leavers were also outcome-oriented, and of course much more powerfully placed to pursue their desired outcomes. As we discussed earlier, there was a way forward after the 2016 referendum that would have focused on process, attempting to bring both sides of the argument along so far was possible. But the Brexiteers/Leavers were overwhelmingly concerned to press their small numerical advantage in the referendum to get the maximum they could.
RB: To return to what happens now, the literature on Citizens’ Assemblies is clear, I think, about the optimum conditions for incentivising participants and for a successful outcome, which is the entire political spectrum being on board and ready to take the recommendations seriously. But in the absence of such a prospect, and in an era of rising authoritarian nationalisms of various kinds, all of which rely for maintaining power on the unitary ‘people’s will’, the proliferation of enemy images and polarised societies, how can we best promote this counter-force of deliberative democracy and civil exchange to a wider public?
SW: Perhaps this comes back to the question of how far the experience within a Citizens’ Assembly can transfer to a wider public sphere. Is the experience insulated, as it were, within the walls of the assembly? There is an ongoing research agenda here to look into how a Citizens’ Assembly engages a wider public, and how, as I would put it, it can bring the public with it on the journey that the assembly participants themselves are on. The Yale-based political scientist Hélène Landemore is working on what I think will be a terrific book on what she calls ‘open democracy’ – great name! – which amongst other things discusses the example of the Icelandic constitutional reform assembly which seems to have drawn much of the public into its deliberations through relative transparency in its proceedings and soliciting feedback on constitutional drafts.
In terms of the cross-party precondition, one of the advantages of the Citizens’ Assembly model is that if it is done properly you should get a left-right spectrum of political perspectives within the assembly itself. So insofar as the left, or democratic reformers, propose a Citizens’ Assembly as a way forward, they are proposing mini-publics that are in themselves not confined to the left or to democratic reformers.
Here I think Iceland offers less of a model. Iceland’s Constitutional Council, which drew up a new constitution that hasn’t yet been ratified, was in effect elected and not selected in a quasi-random way as with Citizens’ Assemblies. My reading of the Iceland case is that you had something of a division in the country about whether there ought to be fundamental constitutional reform, and the people who participated in the election to the Constitutional Council were probably better representing the reformers than the constitutional conservatives. This weakened the legitimacy of the Constitutional Council itself. Going with Citizens’ Assemblies gets around the problem that you might end up with proposals on reform that just reflect the views of reformers.
Going with Citizens’ Assemblies gets around the problem that you might end up with proposals on reform that just reflect the views of reformers.
RB: Finally, please tell me more about the advantages of the PAR mechanism that you have been writing about. Might such a mechanism help with this wider public outreach?
SW: The Petition-Assembly-Referendum proposal (PAR) is a response to the key questions I flagged earlier about Citizens’ Assemblies – who gets to set assemblies up, who sets the agenda, and what happens to the proposals?
The PAR model is one in which citizens have the right to petition to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on a particular topic or to address a particular question (‘Petition’). If the petition gets sufficient support, then there is a Citizens’ Assembly on this topic or question (‘Assembly’). This assembly then has the power to put its proposals, if it wishes, to a referendum (‘Referendum’). So PAR is one way of thinking about Citizens’ Assemblies that takes them out of the immediate hands of governments and politicians in terms of their establishment agenda and what happens to their proposals. It is the opposite of the purely consultative Citizens’ Assembly I described earlier.
PAR is one idea, then, for how we might try to embed Citizens’ Assemblies into a contemporary democracy. It is a proposal that has come up a few times in the academic literature. The political scientist John Ferejohn has put the idea forward as a variant on the Citizens’ Initiative that they have in some US states such as California. Where citizens can already initiate a referendum, Ferejohn proposed that you put a Citizens’ Assembly in the middle of the process.
The idea does not have a great deal of salience, so far as I can tell, in the discussion around Citizens’ Assemblies. My sense – and I’m happy to be corrected on this – is that much of this discussion takes something closer to the consultative Citizens’ Assembly as the norm. Take, for example, the Citizens’ Convention in UK Democracy that we’ve discussed a few times in this conversation. This is not a government-sponsored initiative, but does have buy-in from some politicians. The agenda is largely already set before going into the process. And the proposals at the end of the process are envisaged to go back to the UK Parliament. PAR is probably still an outlier in the mainstream discussion of Citizens’ Assemblies.
PAR is one idea, then, for how we might try to embed Citizens’ Assemblies into a contemporary democracy.
Nevertheless, it is an idea that is worth more consideration. It might have applications in terms of local democracy, for example, as well as within the national space. And I think it also offers, potentially, a response to right populist demands for direct democracy.
One strand of contemporary right-wing populist thought picks up on the idea that citizens should have the right to initiate referendums. The left needs a response. I’m not sure that saying ‘No, we are a representative democracy and not a direct democracy’ is, either normatively or politically, an adequate response. But saying, ‘Well, we are or should be a deliberative democracy and so we support an initiative mechanism, but it should work through Citizens’ Assemblies’, seems like a deliberative democrat response to right populism that is both morally strong and maybe has some political punch as well.
A striking feature of Labour’s election campaign in 2019 is that it was fought almost wholly on an economic agenda. I strongly agree with this agenda, but perhaps one question coming out of the election is whether the left doesn’t also need a political empowerment, political reform agenda as well as something like this economic agenda. And if so what does this look like? The current Coronavirus crisis is likely to see all kinds of expansion in state powers in the UK, as elsewhere, and so also highlights the need for a progressive agenda for thinking about the structure of the state itself.
If Labour and/or the wider left gets onto the terrain of thinking about political reform, the PAR scheme will be relevant, an idea that is about citizens’ empowerment and popular sovereignty, but which also takes very seriously the value of deliberation.