It is time to turn Brexit into a triumph of democracy

Over one year on and with the exception of a now accepted transition period, there couldn’t really be less clarity in the public mind on what Brexit means. So do we leave it to the negotiators and the um, experts?

It is not just whether and how we exit the EU, but what comes next? If we want to be sovereign, and succeed, how do we want to use that freedom?

Somehow, democracy has to get a grip.

Alongside what happens in Parliament, to my mind, there are three vital ingredients for a truly democratic Brexit.

  1. The first is that we need a much better objective sense – and public literacy – of the facts, of what the issues and trade-offs are. This is not to curtail knock-about campaigning and tribal communications – this is a wedge issue after all and that is what wedges do, they divide. But we can’t only have that post-fact tribal rhetoric – that is demagoguery and not democracy.
  2. The second is that we need genuine deliberation – that characteristic of all great democracies that in exchanging views and sharing information, we change our views and come together around different options. John Dewey would describe democracy as starting in conversation. Well, we need an adult, respectful and informed conversation around Brexit.
  3. The third is that we need a decision-making process which can draw on these first two to make decisions with full democratic legitimacy on behalf of the people of the nations and regions of the UK. That may simply be the working through of our current representative system, or supplemented in ways that support that – whether through effective parliamentary scrutiny, new referenda or greater dialogue across political representatives at a devolved level.
But we need the first two in order to make a success of the third. If we leave it to MPs, what mandate really do they have? If we run a second referendum, is that because those who propose it simply see it as a backdoor to reverse the first one?
Luckily, we now have a start on the first two: information and deliberation.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is taking place this month, with the second of two sessions coming up in Manchester next weekend.

A deliberative forum like this is a well established participatory tool. It brings people together who are broadly selected to be representative of the electorate of the United Kingdom. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit allows members to engage in detailed, reflective and informed discussions about what the UK’s post-Brexit relations with the European Union should be.

By the end,  the goal is to agree on recommendations for what should happen next. 

The project is led by the Constitution Unit at UCL, supported by a range of partners including Involve, the democracy charity I am proud to be Chair of. It is also supported in principle by UK politicians across the Brexit spectrum. 

At the first session, all 51 assembly members turned up and stayed engaged throughout the full weekend. It makes me hopeful for Brexit and democracy that they also enjoyed it! Average scores out of six across the Assembly Members were:
  • The event overall: 5.2
  • The lead facilitators: 5.8
  • The table facilitators: 5.5

A balanced range of expert speakers gave an information input to the event: Angus Armstrong, David Paton, Thomas Sampson, and Shanker Singham spoke on trade policy. Catherine Barnard, David Coleman, and Jonathan Portes spoke on immigration. Anand Menon served as roving expert. Alan Renwick – Director of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, and the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit – gave his thoughts in a blog on the first stage of the event.

The briefing papers for the Citizens Assembly are the most comprehensive and unbiased source of information on the options for trade and immigration after leaving the EU that I know of.

This is the first step of the three above, and is essential for a working democracy, even more so in an age of fake news. One participatory pioneer, Perry Walker (a distringuished colleague from days at the New Economics Foundation), created a ‘democracy in a box’ game some time back, called Democs. He explained to me the vital need to separate out facts from opinions:

“The first part of the kit was ‘facts’ – what an academic would call a factoid – something that is generally accepted and ideally, in this case, would be signed off by Full Fact or a similar authority.

The second was explicitly opinionated. For example, one was by Jeremy Clarkson, in a Democs kit on Climate Change, saying that it didn’t really matter if we lost Holland to rising sea levels – there were other places to go on holiday. In a kit on the Scottish Referendum, we had two sets of opinion Cards, one pro and one anti-Independence, to make sure that each had the same exposure.”

To my mind, we would benefit from establishing a core set of facts around Brexit and its implications and options. These would be signed off by a relevant authority (perhaps the UCL Constitution Unit, perhaps the Office of National Statistics) and circulated widely in a concise, social marketing-led form through libraries, GP clinics, government offices and civil society. A programme like this would be part of building a wider public Brexit literacy helping in turn to ensure that whatever future we face going forward is one which people can feel responsibility for, rather than surprised by or embittered about.

The Assembly meets again this weekend to make decisions such as the best options around trade and immigration arrangements post Brexit.

This is hopeful stuff. So far, national politics and the media are not helping to shape dialogue or debate. Rather than widen the base of facts on which we can deliberate between trade-offs, as democracy aims to do, we are ruled by every variety of shallow promise in terms of having our cake and eating it.

It is time to turn Brexit into a triumph of democracy.



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