On Brexit, independence and devolution, citizens’ assemblies could build consensus, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
We now know what Brexit and a second Scottish independence have in common: they aren’t happening any time soon, and politicians would like to hand the difficult decisions over to you.
The lack of momentum around leaving the EU is palpable. Talks between the government and Labour are an exercise in killing time until European elections that are set to become the biggest protest vote in modern political history.
Nicola Sturgeon says she wants a second independence referendum before the 2021 Scottish elections, but knows that won’t happen. In an attempt to wrong-foot her opponents and make it look to supporters as if something is happening, the First Minister has instead invited opposition parties for talks about what a better devolution settlement should look like, and proposed a citizens’ assembly to work out the details of an eventual second referendum.
Sturgeon’s second idea is attracting some interest. Could ordinary citizens break the deadlock created by politicians? Faced with growing, vocal demands to change Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, in 2016 the government in Dublin set up a citizens’ assembly to consider the most controversial of issues.
The gathering of 99 ordinary people was nuanced on detail but issued a decisive judgement: the abortion ban had to go. Within two years, in a historic public vote, Ireland gave the same verdict by a two-to-one margin.
Referendums ought only to be used to give democratic legitimacy to decisions on questions that have already been fully digested by the public, where a consensus exists. That’s why the devolution referendum of 1997 was so decisive, while the 2016 Brexit referendum was so divisive – and the 2014 independence referendum fell somewhere in between.
Brexit provides the best example of how the clamour of an election campaign, and its zero-sum outcome, doesn’t produce the most honest debate or the best-informed decision.
A citizens’ assembly creates the space for informed debate and the airing of strongly-held views. A citizens’ assembly wouldn’t have to give one verdict on a single question. It would be free to consider various options and proposals. The Irish assembly considered 13 different circumstances when a woman might need or seek an abortion, and what if any restrictions should be applied in each case.
There has, in fact, already been a citizens’ assembly on Brexit. Marshalled by a group of universities and the Electoral Reform Society, in 2017 a group of 50 people met over two weekends, briefed by experts on the thorny issues of law and trade and addressed by two MPs from opposing sides of the debate. The outcome – surprise, surprise – traced the outline of a compromise that might make it through the Commons if it wasn’t for political partisanship: the UK should stay in the customs union, retain free movement, and avoid no-deal.
Polling guru John Curtice has said that the lesson from years of ambiguous polls on Scotland’s place in the UK is that Scots want as much power devolved to Edinburgh as possible – a kind of independence in the Union.
The SNP says Westminster is broken, Labour agrees but has been slow to act, and even some Scottish Tories are calling for constitutional reform.
Ultimately leaders have to lead, and big changes to the structure of the UK have to be approved by referendum. A citizens’ assembly offers a better way of getting to that point.