The likelihood of politicians reaching a consensus on Brexit appears to be diminishing by the day – to consternation on all sides. But what if there’s another way?
Parliament is split on May’s deal and even that is not along party lines. There are what appear to be unbreachable schisms within both the Tories and Labour.
Bringing the country together on this issue can seem almost an impossible task. But there is a tried and tested way of doing this: a Citizens’ Assembly.
You may not have heard of a Citizens’ Assembly before, but it is not something to be afraid of. It’s a simple way of reaching answers to difficult questions.
On Brexit, it would involve a representative group of people, initially selected at random, meeting over a few days to learn about and discuss the various issues and possible solutions.
At the end of these sessions, which can involve independent experts in an educative role as well as thinkers and campaigners on all sides, the Assembly reaches recommendations.
It’s a simple idea, but one which has proved to be very effective. The 2016 citizens’ assembly in Ireland has been credited with finding a way forward through complex and contested constitutional issues including laws on abortion and same-sex marriage.
The huge benefit of a Citizens’ Assembly is that it provides a constructive setting which emphasises knowledge and constructive debate.
When compared to the bickering we see in the House of Commons, or the outright bullying we see online, it could be just the forum needed to unite the country on Brexit.
It is a solution the Electoral Reform Society have now backed, having had experience running civil society-led assemblies in the past. The way citizens came together to find solutions across divides was inspiring.
Lots of people agree, it turns out: including the likes of Damon Albarn and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
Below is the full text of a letter published in the Guardian this week:
Our politics and our parliament is in deadlock over Brexit. But if we choose to learn from other countries in how we resolve our differences, this could be a moment when Britain comes together rather than falling apart in constitutional chaos.
Looking on, we cannot see how a majority can be found for any proposition in parliament: some want to remain, some want no deal, some want Norway, some want to vote again. The same rifts exist across the UK. Anger and resentment are growing, splitting families, communities and our country. Without a new intervention, the toxic culture which has infected public life will irrevocably damage democracy and the future for us all.
Each of us individually has different views on what should happen next when it comes to Brexit, but we all agree that finding a way forward is vital to restoring faith in our democracy. We are not MPs and we respect the important work they do. Yet we also recognise that there are important ways to help heal this rift and involve the public in deeper and more meaningful ways.
Citizens’ assemblies operate around the world to create a neutral forum for evidence-based, participative decision-making. In recent years, they have been used in Ireland, British Columbia and Iceland, and in national and local government in the UK, as democratic “circuit-breakers” on contentious and complex issues. Taking eight weeks to organise, such assemblies are constructed of a randomly chosen representative group of up to 500 members of the public. They hear a broad range of evidence and arguments on a subject, which they discuss and weigh up before making considered recommendations to their political representatives.
A forum led by the public, not by politicians. People talking and listening to each other, not shouting and arguing on or offline, to find common ground. Not superseding MPs by judging the outcome, but offering recommendations on how Brexit should be decided, to help break this deadlock and start to heal the nation’s bitter divisions.
Brexit has come to test the patience of the British public. To make progress we should instead trust their wisdom and use it to resolve our differences, deepen our democracy and unite us all.
Rowan Williams, Damon Albarn, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan, Caitlin Moran, Neal Lawson Compass, Dr Jess Garland Electoral Reform Society, Ruth Lister Labour, House of Lords, Anshu Srivastava The Full Brexit, Alexandra Runswick, Unlock Democracy, Prof Graham Smith Centre for the Study of Democracy, Francesca Klug Human rights expert, Nick Lowles Hope Not Hate, Anthony Barnett Co-founder of openDemocracy, Michael Wills Labour, House of Lords, Graham Allen Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy, Tim Hughes Involve, Prof Nick Pearce Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath, Nick Baines Bishop of Leeds, Peter Cross Sortition Foundation
There’s a way through this Brexit impasse – let’s embrace it.