1. In September 2017, members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – randomly selected to capture the diversity of the UK population – met in Manchester to consider options for the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe.
2. The Assembly’s members were selected to reflect the 2016 Brexit referendum vote, alongside social class, region, age, gender and ethnicity. Of the 50 members, 25 voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, 22 voted Remain and 3 did not vote. The Assembly enjoyed bipartisan support, and had been endorsed by a range of high-profile figures from across the Brexit divide, including Conservatives Bernard Jenkin and Nicky Morgan, Labour’s Chuka Umunna, and Leave backer Harsimrat Kaur.
3. Over a series of weekends, participants had access to Leaver and Remainer expertise on the subjects they chose to prioritise. At the end of the process, the assembly made a series of recommendations that were collected in a summary report [PDF]
4. What stood out from the beginning was that, when given the opportunity to engage in in-depth discussions on everything from the Single Market to migration policy, citizens jump at the chance. Ordinary people coming together to engage in productive and thoughtful discussion can find solutions to major and complex problems.
5. Four votes were put to the control group, on immigration policy, trade with the EU, global trade policy and the overall Brexit deal. In each case, after discussion, participants agreed on favouring in a Soft Brexit, but t were also clear that if this could not be achieved in negotiation, they would rather remain in the EU for now.
6. According to one observer, the people who took part often worked towards a compromise, even if doing so necessitated substituting out their own personal opinions.
7. Most importantly, participants were delighted to have been chosen for this task; glad to have access to careful, thoughtful discussion of the arguments for and against different options; and gladdest of all and relieved to realise that they could engage in discussion with fellow-Brits of an opposite persuasion without the ceiling falling in.
8. In late 2018, the idea of a citizens’ assembly on Brexit started gaining traction again, as more and more people agreed that only a more deliberative way of doing democracy could help move beyond the blinkered, ideologically-driven and often unreasonably oppositional debate that has plagued the Brexit process. The civil society organisation Compass recently started an online petition pushing for a citizens’ assembly on Brexit, and several prominent figures signed an open letter to the Guardian demanding a new approach to Brexit
The recent citizens’ assembly on abortion in Ireland is regarded as a historic achievement in dealing with a highly polarised issue and changing people’s minds. These events take a lot of organisation, both in finding the right range of participants and in giving them access to the balanced expertise that is required, and not least putting them up for a few days of deliberation. But why not investigate your local authorities or council to see if it is worth mounting your own campaign for a local Citizens’ Assembly.
Neal Lawson makes the case for a nationwide citizens’ assembly on Brexit, arguing that the way out of the Brexit mess must be more democratic than the way in, and that a Brexit Citizens Assembly might possibly be the only way to start to reunite our fractured nation.
In this editorial, the British media outlet lends its support to the arguments made by campaigners that the Irish referendum on abortion can be taken as the blueprint for how the UK moves past the Brexit deadlock.