The ways out of the Brexit mess are now becoming clearer, writes Charles Turner (Warwick). Assuming that, in this parliamentary democracy, the non-choice between May’s deal and no deal can be avoided, there seem to be five alternatives. The best one, however, would be to organise a citizens’ assembly, he argues.
MPs can indeed pass Theresa May’s deal against their better judgment, they can allow the UK to crash out with no deal against their even better judgment, they can revoke Article 50 and hold a people’s vote or a second referendum, they can revoke it and organize a citizens’ assembly to make the ultimate decision, or they can revoke it and remain in the EU. Forget a general election, it’s not going to happen.
Let’s assume they reject the first two, but are too frightened to go for the last, the simplest and cheapest but also riskiest. That leaves the third and fourth. At the moment the people’s vote looks more likely, though many Tory and Labour MPs say it would be an affront to democracy, a way of telling people that they had got it wrong the first time; they are joined now by Vladimir Putin. Against this unlikely coalition, Caroline Lucas and others say that ‘we know more now than we did before’, and so we can have an informed debate on the more concrete options before us.
Are we sure about this? There is a danger that the campaign would be run along the same lines as the last one, with a series of debates, or non-debates, between the same sets of ill-chosen people – willfully ignorant politicians and members of the public, opinionated columnists (we know who they are) – with wild claims being made on either side. Maybe we can do better than that.
One idea might be a people’s vote but this time without a campaign at all, on the grounds that people could make better use of their time preparing for their vote by informing themselves. What if we went further and invoked a principle that has spread into many areas of life in the last couple of decades, namely ‘informed consent’, and said to people, if you are going to make this major change, you really do need to know what it is you are endorsing, so if you want a ballot card, you need to take an exam?
Pie in the sky? In practice, it probably is, though it’s not a bad principle. After all, anyone not born in the UK who wants to become a British citizen and thus be entitled to vote as well as pay tax here has to take the life in Britain test that many of us would fail. A basic but rigorous test, with a time limit for completion, could be devised, on the EU’s rules and institutions, and the proposals themselves. If they passed the test people would be able to print off their barcoded voting form in the way you print off any machine-readable ticket, take it along to the polling station, have it checked off and vote as individuals who have thought things out for themselves.
The trouble is, even if you could make this foolproof – to stop, say, one well-informed person repeatedly taking the exam for friends, or selling the answers, an individual test might be randomly generated when someone sits down to take it – there is no time to organize the systems you would need. ID cards would be needed for a start. So if there is to be a people’s vote it will, I fear, have all of the vices of the last one, with hopes and fears acting as a substitute for knowledge.
Image by Òmnium Cultural, (CC BY-SA 2.0).
No, if, if, if this is going to go back to the people it seems to me that a citizens’ assembly might be a better idea. Lisa Nandy MP has written a rather brilliant defence of this in The New York Review of Books. Take a group of people at random, or rather selected carefully at random, sit them down with experts for a few days, people who know things about how stuff works, give them a set time to thrash out the issues and let them decide. It has been done before, and across the world it is becoming an increasingly popular – but not populist – way of resolving matters that politicians cannot resolve. It would also break what has become a deadly embrace between the people and parliament, which has left both of them looking like ageing wrestlers, so weak and exhausted that the executive threatens to run roughshod over them both The people are divided and not a little bewildered, while MPs for their part are too wedded to party loyalty or ideology or to holding on their seats to find a way across divides. There are 650 of them. As they seem to like holidays, let’s give them another one, replace them with 650 citizens and say ‘over to you’.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics.
Charles Turner is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick.