The Chamberlain Files | Homepage
Brexit Citizens’ Assembly – does it stand a chance?

Brexit Citizens’ Assembly – does it stand a chance?

🕔23.Jan 2019

I’m starting this blog on Blue Monday, so thought I’d open cheerily with a leftover Christmas quiz question. What have the following in common: former Archbishop of Canterbury, Baron Rowan Williams; Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas; Jonathan Coe, author of Birmingham-based novel, The Rotters’ Club; former PM, Gordon Brown; reformist rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner; and Blur/Gorillaz lead singer, Damon Albarn asks Chris Game?

Yes, of course, they’ve all recently and publicly called for a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) – along with some names that would have made the guessing rather easier: the Electoral Reform Society, Guardian newspaper, political website openDemocracy, and numerous other more and less political worthies.

Apart from the obvious question of why one would be fascinated by most of these celebrities’ views about anything seriously important, there’s the added difficulty that the notion of a CAB is about as far as their agreement – and in some cases their realism – appears to go.

I’ll illustrate with an extreme example. Not the most extreme – which has to be the vision of Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, of “Turning Brexit into a Celebration of Democracy” – but the most recent espousal of what not just Brexiteers would surely see as indefinite postponement: Gordon Brown’s article in this Monday’s Guardian.

Brown proposes – but “not as a delaying tactic”, you understand – dealing with this admitted “constitutional crisis” by keeping 27 EU countries, their politicians, people and problems on further hold by the extension of Article 50, in this case to enable a series of citizens’ assemblies whose conclusions would then go back to Parliament for, this time, “constructive reconsideration” (don’t ask!), before starting the whole process again, “including the option of a renegotiation followed by a referendum”.

In July 2016, even after the June 2017 General Election – super idea!  A pity he didn’t  mention it.  But January 2019, 67 days before Brexit – you could hardly make it up.

By contrast, back on Planet Practical, two of the more informed and realistic CAB bids have come from Labour’s collection of impressive women MPs: Stella Creasy’s Financial Times ‘Opinion’ column and Lisa Nandy’s much longer article in The New York Review of Books, the latter of which has the additional virtue of referring to the Brexit Citizens’ Assembly we’ve already had.

As shall I, but not before describing Birmingham’s role in this debate – hosting, on behalf of the House of Commons, the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care – which is the main pretext for this blog.

It was a two-weekend event last Spring, focusing on reform of Social Care funding. Chief instigator was Dr Sarah Wollaston, Chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, who was desperate for something, anything, that might accelerate the Government’s Green Paper on Social Care, promised for Summer 2017 and, punctual as a West Coast train, still to arrive.

Wollaston joined forces with Clive Betts’ Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and the public participation charity, Involve.

The polling company ICM randomly selected 47 Assembly members from over 5,500 people approached who – unlike, say, a radio phone-in – were statistically representative of England’s population in age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic group, housing, AND their ‘Big/Small state’ view on whether government should cut, maintain or increase taxes. And yes, an honorarium averaging roughly a tenner an hour, if you were wondering.

On this scale it was a first for Commons committees.  Internationally, though, there are numerous models, including in about a third of EU countries, most notable of late being Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, which has contributed now to elevating debate on several highly contentious questions: fixed-term parliaments, population ageing, and, legalised just this month following last May’s referendum, abortion – than which in Ireland not even Brexit is more emotive.

All such exercises follow an essentially similar three-step process: learning, deliberation and decision-making.  First, therefore, the Birmingham Assembly members learned from various experts about different public and private models of adult social care funding, and from some social care users their actual experiences and views.

Then, assisted by professional ‘facilitators’, they discussed in small groups the values and principles they felt should underpin policy on social care funding: most basically their preferences for public or private funding and the balance between the two. Finally, though spread in practice across the two weekends, were the four paper-based ballots.

Any brief summary of the results is inevitably insultingly superficial, but the headlines would include that, of four funding options ranging from entirely public to entirely private, over two-thirds chose the former as their first preference and all but two at least a public-weighted balance.

Consistent with this vote, there was nil support for keeping unchanged the present boundary between health and social care, and overwhelming backing for all social care, like health care, being free at the point of delivery. To fund this preference, one-third favoured general taxation, and two-thirds ‘earmarked’ taxation, the latter being more ‘sellable’ to voters who would know where their money is going.

From nine specific funding options, single top choice was the social insurance model – a separate, compulsory payment, calculated as a percentage of income, paid by everyone from age 40 onwards – while a combination of National Insurance and an earmarked addition to income tax had the backing of an Assembly majority.

There was loads more, but especially striking were participants’ overwhelmingly positive responses to the exercise – “privileged to have been a part”; “important for democracy”, “how else would you receive informed views from the general public?” – and their average 9.5 out of 10 rating.

My personal favourite, though, was: “Thanks, it’s been great; can we solve world peace next?”  To which the answer has to be: “Certainly, but only once you’ve cracked Brexit.”

As already noted, though rarely by those now jumping aboard the CAB bandwagon, we have in fact been there, done that – though slightly irritatingly the T-shirt’s printed ‘Manchester’.

Very similar organisationally to Birmingham’s, the CAB was held over two weekends in that other city in Autumn 2017.  Its brief was not to replay the referendum, but to address the problem, as obvious then as now, that no one could know, let alone agree, which of the numerous possible Brexits the famous 51.9% had voted for.

For the record and ludicrously abbreviated, the Assembly’s preferences included a bespoke UK/EU trade deal and customs union allowing UK to conduct its own international trade policy while maintaining a frictionless border. Retain free movement of labour, but with UK Government exercising all available controls to prevent abuse.  Ultimately, if no trade deal proved negotiable, staying in the Single Market and Customs Union is preferable to No Deal.

It’s been evident for decades – particularly to overseas observers, used to their compromise-encouraging semi-circular and horseshoe-shaped legislatures – just how antiquated, sclerotic, unrepresentative, and publicly alienating our divisive, government-dominated parliamentary system has become: 13th and 19th Century architecture geared to a 20th Century party system.

Which is why, of course, a 21st Century public-engaging conflict resolution device, like a Citizens’ Assembly, never stood a chance.

Similar Articles

Just when you thought the election was over…

Just when you thought the election was over…

As Members of Parliament began to be sworn in yesterday, the long campaign for Mayor

The Day of Truth

The Day of Truth

So, here it is. The polls will open in a few minutes. Contain your excitement

PM: gave unlawful advice; frustrated Parliament

PM: gave unlawful advice; frustrated Parliament

"Scenes." As young people would say, writes Kevin Johnson. "Unlawful." "Unequivocal." "Historical." These words are not,

WMCA: Nothing to see here…move along

WMCA: Nothing to see here…move along

As the Prime Minister prepared to address leaders ‘up North’ gathering for the Convention of

HS2: new driver needed

HS2: new driver needed

Is the Oakervee Review "welcome", "frustrating" or the end of the line for HS2, asks

About Author

Chamberlain Files Weekly

Don't miss a thing! Sign up for our free weekly summary of the Chamberlain Files from RJF Public Affairs.
* = required field

powered by MailChimp!

Our latest tweets

Published by

Published by


Our community