Can a Citizens’ Assembly Break the Brexit Gridlock?

June 4, 2019 Kerrie O'Flynn

Tory leadership contestant Rory Stewart has recently pitched his solution to the Brexit gridlock – a 500 strong Citizens’ Assembly which will make an informed assessment of the Brexit landscape and report back to Parliament with recommendations on a way forward.

This is a welcome suggestion and one that I have heard before. But when I first heard the case for it to be used in relation to Brexit, it was made in retrospective terms. The Citizens’ Assembly could have informed the debate before the Brexit referendum. The 2016 referendum was mired with exaggerated claims, half-truths and misdirection from leading political figures. The argument goes that a Citizens’ Assembly would have remedied this through rational and reasoned deliberation, where Brexit and its consequences would be investigated, like a jury, by representatives of the populace. Citizens’ Assemblies capitalise on the trust that exists in the civil society of liberal democracies and in the past have helped to legitimise the outcome of political decision-making.

Rory Stewart referenced one such case – the Irish referendum on legalising abortion – to support his proposal on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Like the 2016 referendum, the Irish referendum centred on a yes/no decision and was highly emotive. The Irish Government, supporting a Yes vote, accepted the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and proposed to legalise unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks gestation in order to clarify what would happen if the Irish people voted to legalise abortion. This recommendation was more liberal than previously thought possible.
In the run up to both referenda, fake facts were spun, experts were disbelieved and dismissed; and the same liberal elite vs the people dichotomy existed. The results, however, were very different – Ireland voted to legalise abortion by 66.4% while Britain voted to leave the EU with 52% of the popular vote.

When I heard Rory Stewart announce he would create a Citizens Assembly were he to become Prime Minister, I was happy to hear it as it seems to me to be a logical way to conduct the debate surrounding Brexit. But is it too late to do it now, three years after the vote was held and already passed the original Exit date? After years of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and the portrayal of failure to deliver on that referendum result as a failure of democracy?

Many questions then follow on how the Assembly will be selected and transparent without subjecting representatives to media glare and public scrutiny. Everyone in the UK will be directly affected by Brexit in more ways than one and the populace has undergone three years of relatively stagnant public debate where ‘the other side’ increasingly has been casted as being on ‘the wrong side’ of the argument. Is an increasingly divisive environment conducive to a Citizens’ Assembly?

Rory’s answer would be yes, and all the more reason for it. He is the candidate for compromise. But in this Tory leadership contest, there is a hardening of the Brexit debate where compromise is viewed as the failed way of Theresa May. And with only four Remainer Tory MPs publicly backing his bid so far, it does not seem likely that compromise will win the race.