Could a citizens’ assembly break Brexit deadlock?

The Guardian joins Damon Albarn and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in calling for radical solution

Brexit protesters
Brexit protesters face off against each other this week
(Image credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The Guardian has backed calls by prominent public figures for a so-called citizens’ assembly to break the Brexit impasse.

With MPs widely expected to reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal in a vote next week, the newspaper believes Parliament should “open up the debate to the country”.

They should do this “first, by establishing a citizens’ assembly to examine the options and issues that face the nation; and second, by giving parliament the right, if it so chooses, to put these alternatives in a referendum this year or next”, it says in an editorial published yesterday.

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So what is a citizens’ assembly?

The Guardian editorial follows an open letter signed by a number of prominent public figures, including Blur frontman Damon Albarn and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, demanding a new approach that would see 500 members of the public debate Brexit and decide on a solution.

Facilitated by experts and combining small-group discussions with large-scale debates and a series of votes, those selected to take part in citizens’ assembly sessions “are deliberately chosen to reflect the wider population – to ensure an even spread of age, ethnicity, political views and regions that accurately mirrors the UK”, says iNews.

“Time is taken to ensure that the members of the public taking part have the time to learn about the topic they are discussing and fully understand it before reaching their conclusions,” adds the news site.

Have they been used before?

Citizens assemblies have been used in the UK most recently to debate the issue of social care. They have also been used in Australia, Canada and the US.

In Iceland they were used to draw up a new constitution but their most notable success was in the run-up to last year’s abortion referendum in Ireland, where a panel of 99 voters convened over a series of weekends to thrash out the issue and set the terms of the final vote.

Who else backs the idea?

The Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines, Labour peer Ruth Lister, and novelists Jonathan Coe and Ian McEwan were among the signatories to the open letter published in December.

Labour MP Stella Creasy has said she is open to the idea, too. “Given the consequences of this stalemate, if there was ever a time to be willing to do things differently, it is now,” she told The Guardian.

“The beauty of this idea is that it is open and fair. There can be no stitch-up. The hard reality is that if Westminster can’t decide, someone has to,” writes Neal Lawson of the thintank Compass on LabourList. “This idea opens up a process of deeper democracy, which is handy as we are going to need to solve a whole set of difficult problems in the future, and starts to align our democracy with the complexity of the 21st century and the kind of collaborative decision making that goes with it.”

Meanwhile, iNews says a citizens’ assembly “could be a way of finding a way forward using neutral, evidence-based discussion – rather than heated political rhetoric – in a forum led by the public, not politicians swayed by party loyalty”.

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