It is hard to turn on the TV now without one politician or another telling us what the ‘British people’ want from Brexit.
On one side, one argues that only leaving the single market will fulfill the will of the public – and that anything else would be a betrayal of the referendum result.
Shortly afterwards another will appear – stating categorically that voters want to stay in the single market to protect jobs (this week’s ‘Single Market summit’ appeared to be a reflection of that).
A million and one things have been read into the referendum result since June 2016 – from our views on the Northern Ireland border to the European Convention on Human Rights.
When these assumptions are made, it’s often a struggle to find the evidence. After all, many of the issues have only been debated after the referendum 18 months ago – the last time large numbers have been able to express their will on Brexit specifically.
Our democracy is grounded in the principle of elected officials representing the wants and needs of their constituents.
But when there is an issue as vital as Brexit, it is essential that what people desire is genuinely understood – and that there’s a chance for meaningful, informed discussion.
Polls are woefully insufficient in this regard. Snapshot results – while sometimes helpful – often oversimplify answers to what are complex problems, squeezing huge issues into a ‘yes/no’ binary.
There is however, another way – one which doesn’t second-guess the public.
Over two weekends in September last year, 50 people were selected at random – but in a way that ensured they reflected the socio-demographic characteristics of the EU vote and how people voted – to take part in the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit.
During the first weekend, the members heard from diverse experts and received balanced briefing papers vetted by an Advisory Board, which featured experts in how to give balanced information on controversial policy issues.
Then, over the second weekend, those same members discussed and debated the issues in depth, before coming to specific decisions on trade and migration policy (read the final report here).
The Assembly showed that UK citizens are willing and able to learn, then deliberate, and then reach recommendations on complex issues –something which the principle of trial by jury in our justice system has been proving for centuries.
Reflecting on the Assembly’s first weekend in a blog post for the Electoral Reform Society, the project’s director, Alan Renwick, wrote about what he learned:
“[It] reminded me never to underestimate the willingness and ability of members of the public to engage with complex political questions.
“Our political system leaves many people feeling unable to play an effective role. But if we structure political discussions so that people have the time and resources to learn about, discuss, and reflect on the issues and ways forward – they do a fantastic job.”
Being told by those in Westminster that you believe one thing, when you actually think another, or simply don’t know yet, can be highly frustrating and contributes to mistrust in those wielding political power.
Rather than continually trying to second-guess what the electorate thinks on this issue or that, it would be better if politicians were to go straight to the source.