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15 November 2017

Wisdom of the citizen

Electing a new government every five years or holding an occasional referendum on a binary yes-no, in-out question doesn’t seem to produce either a satisfied or an engaged electorate. There are of course other ways to invigorate democracy and even (whisper it) make better, more informed decisions. Sometimes referred to as deliberative democracy, new approaches are beginning to emerge that could have far reaching effects on the way our democracy functions. A Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has just finished deliberating on how we should exit the EU. Some fascinating insights.

By The Constitution Unit, UCL

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit reached its climax last month. After two weekends of intense deliberation, the members voted on a range of options for the form they want Brexit to take in relation to trade and immigration. Their conclusions will surprise some, and they deserve detailed attention from politicians and commentators. Assembly Director Alan Renwick summarises these conclusions and reflects on the weekend as a whole. He argues that, while the Brexit debate is often presented in stark binary terms, the Citizens’ Assembly suggests that the British public are capable of much subtler thinking – if only they are given the chance.


In my last post on the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, I reported on a hugely successful first weekend of deliberations. In advance, we had, through stratified random selection, recruited a group of Assembly members who reflected the composition of the UK electorate in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum (25 voted Leave, 22 voted Remain, and three did not vote). We had also developed a programme and set of briefing papers that had been vetted by our advisory board, comprising supporters of both sides in the referendum, as well as experts in balanced communication. At the first weekend itself, remarkably, every Assembly member attended. They showed immense dedication, working long hours as they reflected on their own views, discussed ideas with fellow members, listened to experts, and quizzed those experts in depth. The experts presented diverse perspectives, some emphasising the benefits of single market membership or immigration, while others pointed out the costs of high immigration or argued for the advantages of cutting free from the single market and customs union. Our team of professional facilitators from Involve did a superb job of guiding proceedings and keeping the discussions on track.


This time I can report on an equally successful second – and final – weekend. Attendance was again astonishingly high: every member but one (who was ill) returned. Once again, all (and I do mean all) were tremendously focused and limitlessly good humoured. Members naturally did not always share each other’s views, but they listened and spoke respectfully and genuinely. Our facilitation and support teams were again inspirational. It was a privilege to be there.


While the first weekend focused on learning, the second was all about deliberation and decision-making. We began on Friday evening with short talks and Q&A sessions with two prominent politicians: Graham Brady MP, chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, spoke for leaving the single market and customs union; Labour MP Kate Green advocated the opposite. Thereafter, there were no more external speakers. The weekend was devoted to the Assembly members, who reflected on what they wanted post-Brexit policy-making to achieve and then on which policy options they wanted the government to pursue.

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