In Australia just over eight years ago, the new prime minister Julia Gillard faced intense political factionalism and entrenched public polarisation in her dilemma over federal climate change policy. A bright spark in her advisory group came up with a novel way to bridge this impasse – convene a citizens’ assembly of ordinary, randomly selected Australians to deliberate on the issue.
You will understand, then, the sense of déjà vu that overcame me in seeing a series of political figures latch on to the very same idea as a solution to the omnishambles of Brexit. Labour MPs Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy have suggested randomly selecting a cross-section of the British public to meet over seven weekends to hear testimony, deliberate together and deliver recommendations.
It might be instructive to look at what happened next to Gillard’s proposal when considering whether this would work. Announced in the morning to some fanfare, the proposal to hold an assembly had been roundly pilloried on all sides before the day was out. Environmentalists saw it as a cop out from the Australian Labor party’s pledge to deal with climate change as “the great moral challenge of our time”. Industry saw it as a front for pushing through a carbon tax. Media outlets left and right derided it as a joke, a farce, a blunder. The citizens’ assembly was immediately dropped from Labor’s campaign rhetoric. It would later be remembered as a major contributing factor in Gillard’s faltering public image.
Of course, a citizens’ assembly on Brexit might play out differently. But given that almost everything about this case is more extreme and intense than the Australian experience – more, and more bitter, party factions; greater polarisation in public opinion; an even more unforgiving commentariat and press – I won’t be holding my breath.
To put that claim in context, I want to make it clear that I am a firm supporter of efforts to engage more deeply and more often with the public in political decision-making. I devote a good deal of my research, teaching and outreach activities towards these ends. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that ordinary people can gather together respectfully deliberate on controversial issues, and collectively reach informed views on public matters of great complexity and importance. Indeed, friends and colleagues of mine have recently engaged in one such exercise about Brexit – albeit, crucially, one primarily academic in orientation and thus insulated from the fierce and chaotic politics swirling around the issue.
But, it should be noted, there is much less evidence that they can be anything like the successful “circuit breaker” that is needed now. To be sure, if Nandy and Creasy could hop in a time machine, and (even less likely) find a sympathetic ear in David Cameron’s advisory team, then, a citizens’ assembly would have been an excellent way to inform the initial referendum. It might even have helped avert the constitutional crisis unfolding before us. But that time has come and gone.
A climate of distrust
This is not to dismiss the value in injecting a little more light (rather than heat) into Brexit discussions or engaging with everyday citizens (rather than in-fighting elites). Citizens’ assemblies are just one of a broader family of democratic innovations and novel participatory practices. And among this family, they strike me as being uniquely ill-suited to this political context.
Citizens’ assemblies mirror the structure of legislatures – and so it is only natural that they prompt concerns about their democratic credentials. Citizens’ assemblies are founded on a notion of descriptive representation (representatives who mirror the demographic characteristics of the citizenry) rather than electoral representation. They have no formal mechanisms of accountability. Though they resemble a very old way of doing democracy – and a way that interests and excites some contemporary philosophers and social scientists – they remain counter-intuitive and alien to most people.
The fundamental difficulty, then, is that citizens’ assemblies are seen to epitomise a top-down, technocratic method of engaging people. These events need to be carefully designed by experts, with scientific methods of sampling and recruitment. They need to be carefully stage-managed by experienced professionals. In a context of widespread distrust, where “people have had enough of the experts” – and “expertise” is so clearly aligned with one side of the debate – engineering a citizens’ assembly on the topic only seems likely to inflame these sentiments.
I think it might be more profitable to reach further into the kitbag of democratic innovation and novel participatory practices. Inside might be something more robust to the rough and tumble of contemporary British politics. For example, Theresa May might draw inspiration from another Australian innovation, and take her ministers on the road – maybe even recommission that notorious red bus – in a series of community cabinets with rowdy, questioning citizen audiences across Britain.
Or, Stephen Barclay (or whoever’s turn it is to be Brexit minister next week) might draw inspiration from the lively, mass-mobilising national public policy conferences of Brazil, and open up new opportunities for citizens to exchange views across intricately integrated levels and settings of discussion and debate.
The difference is that these models – and many other options besides – have their origins in real political practice, not the ideal social laboratory. They rest on a much more established and intuitive account of participation, where anyone affected has a chance to take part. Innovations such as this are therefore likely to be much more appealing than a citizens’ assembly to all concerned: the politicians and the media, who have been the most vocal in the debate, as well as the general public – who also have so much at stake. Conceived as such, the hopes of doing democracy differently to get through the Brexit crisis might not seem such a terrible idea after all.