A citizens’ assembly could be used to break the Brexit deadlock but will not “even begin to solve” any of the social issues which caused it to happen, a leading political scientist has said.
A growing number of MPs are in favour of holding citizens’ assemblies like those used in Ireland, where a representative but randomly selected group of people called together to seek possible solutions to major national issues.
Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party MP, was among a group of 18 opposition MPs who have signed up to an amendment to May’s Brexit plan – tabled by Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy – which called for a citizens’ assembly to be created.
It wasn’t one of the amendments chosen, however, by Speaker of the House, John Bercow, ahead of Tuesday’s debate.
They have been deployed around the world, including in Ireland to tackle marriage equality and abortion questions, to confront social or political challenges politicians have been unable to resolve.
Facilitated by independent experts, they are aimed at removing the conflicts of interest and loyalties that can hamper politicians in reaching a conclusion.
Ms Lucas said that when she met May in talks with opposition MPs following the crushing defeat of May’s Brexit plan, she raised the idea of a second referendum with the prime minister.
“But when I talked about a citizens’ assembly she was genuinely interested and did want to know more about it,” Lucas said.
“My sense is that Downing Street is probably looking for ways out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into.”
No 10 have not categorically ruled out the idea, but say there is no plan for such a system to be used.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week gave a speech where he repeated his view that Britain should delay the formal process of leaving the EU by a year to hold citizens’ assemblies to break the political impasse.
Mr Brown, Labour prime minister from 2007 to 2010, said there was rising public anger over what people perceive as an out-of-touch elite and a paralysed, deadlocked parliament.
“It is the lethal combination of a deadlocked parliament, an ever-more divided country and the mounting distrust between parliament and people that makes me fear for our cohesion,” he said.
Graham Smith, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, who has researched the subject for 20 years, told the Irish World that a citizens assembly “might” be able to break the deadlock but that it may already be too late.
Smith admitted that such a procedure would need both time – “an extension of at least a year” – and recognition from parliament that the impasse will not be broken.
However much support such a process drums up, Smith said that people need to be aware that citizens assemblies are not the “golden bullet that will solve all of Britain’s problems”.
“It won’t solve the social problems that are the basis of the Brexit vote, it won’t solve the tribalism surrounding the debate,” Prof Smith said. “There are some unrealistic expectations about what it can do but I still think one could be part of the process.”
He said he was sceptical of the Creasy amendment, who advocates for a 10-week period in the event of an extension to Brexit, as the public will need to be educated about the merits of an assembly and the process for recruiting people with “wide-ranging views” will be “complicated”.
A clear task would need to be set out for people taking part in any assembly, Smith told the Irish World, as Brexit is less binary than similar votes in Ireland to repeal constitutional amendments.
“That would be a really difficult thing to agree. I’m not sure what the process is for agreeing on the task. The issue is: there are so many differing views as to what the next step should be,” he said.
“It could be choosing between a range of different options. There could be questions about whether a second referendum is on the agenda. Again, that’s part of the problem. There needs to be a clear task.”
Professor David Farrell, a political scientist in University College Dublin who was appointed as Ireland’s Citizens Assembly research leader in 2016, said that divisiveness over Brexit is not a counterargument to an assembly being created to resolve the ongoing political crisis.
“We had a number of referendums since 1983 to try and resolve some of the issues that were caused by the anti-abortion clause in our constitution. This was a debate that had gone back over many generations and people held very strongly-held views,” Prof Farrell told the Irish World.
“And yet, it was possible to take it out of the parliamentary arena for a period, to put it into another place and allow the possibilities of calm and reflective discussion.”
A trial run took place in October 2017, at a hotel in Manchester. Organised by the charity Involve, the assembly brought together 25 leave voters, 22 remain voters and three people who did not vote.
After two weekends, they chose to leave with a trade deal and preferential access for EU citizens, but not free movement. If they couldn’t get such a deal, they argued for Britain to remain in the single market, with free movement under tight controls.
Professor Smith was also a co-leader in a project called Citizens Assembly on Brexit, which was largely ignored when it took place in 2017.
Prof Farrell said that public support in the UK may not be high initially but gave Ireland as an example where backlash from organisations, citizens and certain politicians was overcome.
“What you would probably want for this Citizens’ Assembly is not that it comes forward with the recommendation: yes for Brexit or no for Brexit. You want it to come up with some sense of the wider issues – the more complex and nuanced angles that need to be considered,” he added.