Brexit Citizens Assembly: rising to the United Kingdom's crisis in democracy

On Brexit, as with every other big issue, the future will be negotiated not imposed.

Neal Lawson
9 December 2018

Screenshot from Poltergeist, by Stephen Spielberg. Youtube.Brexit, a crisis of economy, culture, identity, belonging – a crisis of the past, the present and the future, now becomes a constitutional crisis. It’s not just that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have gamed the system for their own personal and political ends – it is the system.

Brexit was weaponised from the get go by both sides keen to go to war and win the spoils – no matter the collateral damage to our political culture and society. All that mattered was beating the other side. It’s the only thing that matters in our adversarial, winner takes all, tribal system and it is killing our politics. More than anything, the crisis it took Brexit to finally surface is revealed as a crisis of democracy.

More than anything, the crisis it took Brexit to finally surface is revealed as a crisis of democracy. Over decades our politicians have refused to heed the signs of this democratic decline. Instead of managing the tricky tensions, paradoxes and compromises of a complex twenty-first century society, our democratic system marginalized and humiliated so many people, for so long, that on that fateful day of June 23, 2016, they took their revenge. People who have been overlooked, left dispirited, desperate and angry, when presented with the voting equivalent of a ‘Break in Case of Emergency’ moment, did exactly that. We now live in the shattered slivers of that climatic moment.

This is the soil in which barbarism festers. Look around, whether it’s Brexit, Macron or the rise of the far right across the globe – it is to the streets and to the demagogues people are tuning – when democracy doesn’t work. It’s a rational choice. Yesterday the Sunday Times produced a YouGov poll in which 48 percent think politics is broken and only 11 per cent think politics is working well.

Wasting our time

The ensuing two and half years since the vote have been the most phenomenal waste of time in British politics. The people said stop, listen and change. There was then the briefest of interludes when some politicians and corporate leaders feigned some interest – but it didn’t last long. 

A few politicians have decided to dig deep. Not least Lisa Nandy through her Centre for Towns. And when Caroline Lucas says she wants to remain and reform, you feel she means it.

But no senior politician has responded even remotely adequately to the demand for change – either here or in the EU. How can the UK and the EU be transformed given that seismic vote? We didn’t know then and we don’t know now.

Instead the drumbeat grows for a second referendum, or now the possibility of revoking Article 50, before anyone understands the reasons why the first one went the way it did. It’s as if the rewind button can be hit and everything goes back to ‘normal’. Making out like it never happened. Making out like these people never happened.

At best patronise them and tell them that staying in is ‘what’s best for them’. Call it a People’s Vote to trick them into believing it’s not what it really is – a second referendum. A second referendum might be the best response, but unless it’s handled really carefully it will blow up in all our faces.  

What should happen?

If the Parliamentary outcome is a stalemate – no majority for anything – just stasis, what should happen next that starts to solve not just Brexit but the democratic crisis that caused Brexit?

-  First, we all have to accept there is no quick fix or easy way out, there will be pain and compromise for everyone – the most powerful should bear the most.

-  Second, the only way out of this mess has to be more democratic than the way in.

-  And third, if Parliament can’t fix this then the people must. But that doesn’t mean jumping straight to a second referendum that is almost bound to be more toxic than the first. Instead parliament should convene what is called a citizens assembly.

This robustly constituted assembly of up to 500 citizens, representing every corner of the country, fairly and accurately, would be given the task of sorting the Brexit impasse. The methodology is tried and tested and it works. Presented with evidence and experts and given time to discuss and debate all the complexities – citizens, freed from Party blinkers, can come up with sensible solutions to the most complex and pressing problems. It worked recently in Ireland on the divisive issue of abortion and united the country precisely because the process was fair and transparent. Given time to discuss and debate all the complexities – citizens, freed from Party blinkers, can come up with sensible solutions to the most complex and pressing problems.

The remit for the Brexit Citizens Assembly would be to decide between no deal, a deal or a second referendum? The assembly would take a few months to deliberate and decide, meaning Article 50 would need to be temporarily delayed.  And while Parliament cannot be bound by any external body, the moral and political pressure to abide by the decisions of the Assembly would be irresistibly strong. If Parliament cannot decide, then this is possibly the only way to start to reunite our fractured nation.

And in the process it would demonstrate just one way in which our broken democratic system could be fixed: showing how citizens assemblies should be at least part of a new twenty-first century democratic settlement for the UK. 

For instance, Brexit would never have happened if we had a proportional voting system because all of that grievance would have found its voice long ago, and not been smothered by a voting system that only listens to and rewards a few swing voters in a few swing seats.  Indeed the assembly approach could then be allied to the kind of deeper economic and social reconciliation being advocated by Gordon Brown in his recent proposal, ("To calm the Brexit storm, we must listen to the UK’s views again", FT,16 November).

Healing the schism

We live in an ever more complex society, in which people are finding their voices in good and not so good ways through social media. It means our old democratic system is becoming dangerously out of step with people’s lived experiences. On Brexit, as with every other big issue, the future will be negotiated not imposed. In his brilliant book On Dialogue the late David Bohm made the crucial insight that only when you understand other people’s assumptions can meaningful dialogue begin. A Citizens Assembly would also provide the space for consideration, evidence, debate, negotiation, empathy and humility – everything that our current democracy denies.

In Stephen Spielberg’s horror movie Poltergeist, the problem is that the family house has been built on a native old burial ground – but instead of clearing the bodies, the cheapskate developers simply top-skimmed the grave-stones – and carnage ensued. Here is a Hollywood metaphor for Brexit and with it the crisis of democracy – run Project Fear on stilts, demand only a No Deal cliff jump, keep pounding the other side until they give up and sit back and enjoy your moment of self-righteousness. And watch the crisis deepen.

When what we need is to dig deep in the soil of a much richer democracy.  Whether Brexit happens or not – the schism in the country has to be healed. Democracy is the only glue we have to bind us together. But it has to be a new democracy. We can start now.

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