Given the surprising twists and turns of contemporary politics in the UK and beyond, it would be foolish to make any predictions about what will happen next given this evening’s crucial vote on the government’s Withdrawal Agreement: it was very heavily defeated. All that is currently certain is that there will be a debate and vote of ‘no confidence’ in the government tomorrow.
Among the many surprising things about this current Brexit impasse is the fact that it has stimulated ‘mainstream’ calls by newspapers and public figures for a ‘citizen’s assembly’ to sort out the mess. Even the Blur/Gorillaz singer-songwriter Damon Albarn (I am a fan) recently got on board with the citizen’s assembly campaign. (Gordon Brown and John Major are interested in a citizens’ assembly too: but they didn’t write the Parklife album). I have fantasized to myself that Damon came across my previous post on how we might learn from fifth-century Classical Athens’ incredibly advanced system of citizen-led deliberative democracy. Perhaps he will write a song about it! Meanwhile, over in France, President Macron has launched a two-month “great national debate” in the hope that a massive consultative and deliberative exercise will answer the widespread public anger behind the rise of the gilets jaunes movement. I have long been convinced of the need to integrate citizens’ assemblies into our ailing politics, and my 28 years of teaching and researching Athenian culture and democracy crucially inform that conviction. At the very moment I am typing this post, Labour MP Stella Creasy is on ‘BBC 5 Live’ advocating a ‘citizens’ panel’ and her interviewer is revealing his ignorance of what citizens’ assemblies actually are. He’s not alone in that, and this post is another attempt to correct widespread ignorance and misunderstanding.
An ancient solution in a modern setting: deliberative democracy
What is a ‘citizen’s assembly’? The basic idea is quite simple and really does have its roots in ancient Athens’ reliance on sortition (drawing lots) and deliberation. Ordinary citizens are selected via randomized and yet representative sampling to produce a ‘mini-public’ which, along similar lines to our criminal jury system, will then be paid to deliberate on thorny policy issues and derive preferences and recommendations. Those outcomes are used by elected representatives and governments to shape policy. They can also legitimize a difficult or controversial decision which breaks a parliamentary deadlock. Citizen assemblies also work well for an impasse brought about by the short-term priorities of electoral politics and the sorts of gaps between perceived public opinion and actual views which can be created by bad polling, media bias or the influence of powerful special interests. They can even be used to determine the subsequent process, options and wording in a local or national referendum.
Recent examples of citizens’ assemblies and ‘deliberative polling’ indicate that it can be a very effective way of securing controversial change for the better while also breaking down divisions and improving ordinary-voter understanding (see good examples in in Texas and Ireland to name just two from many). Even if you, the voter-citizen, weren’t yourself involved in one of these mini-publics, you will trust in, and learn from the process, just as you broadly trust a criminal jury to make the right decision in a case, and on your behalf. The point is that the citizen assembly contains people like you, and who are in your situation. Increasingly, this cannot be said of many of our elected representative bodies.
Now, you might be sceptical that an assembly full of ordinary folk would have the time, knowledge and expertise to deliberate effectively on complex and highly emotive questions such as Brexit. But the point is that a carefully designed and impartially-run citizens’ assembly will go through a ‘learning phase’ where it hears evidence and arguments from experts, politicians and stakeholders on all sides of the question, with impartial organizers ensuring that this process is balanced. When the decision-making starts, the deliberations are structured in such a way that the assembly members must consider trade-offs and dilemmas: if you decide the government should spend more income from taxation on social care, what are you going to cut to fund it? Or do you opt for higher taxes? Citizens’ assemblies thereby produce better informed decision-making and most of those who take part in them report great enjoyment and satisfaction with the process. People who feel left out of politics and remote from the political process start to feel that they matter again: if you don’t get picked for an assembly – most won’t, and many wouldn’t want to be – you can at least see that someone like you has been involved. And everyone is forced out of their ‘filter bubble’ to confront views and experiences which conflict with, or are different from, their own.
The UK context
The UK is well behind the rest of the world on the use of citizens’ assemblies and similar forms of deliberative democracy. (In Canada, one in 67 families have been asked to participate in a deliberative-democratic exercise). And when we do have a go in this country, the positive results are under-reported: few will know that a recent select committee report on the future of social care was crucially informed by a citizens’ assembly. It is another little-known fact that after the Brexit referendum, in Autumn 2017, a 50-strong citizens’ assembly was convened to consider next steps. (It was funded by a variety of UK universities, funding bodies, research units and charities such as Involve, who specialize in running these things). The outcome of this assembly’s deliberations was fascinating:
‘The majority of members of the Assembly wanted to pursue a close, bespoke relationship with the EU. This would take the form of an arrangement allowing the UK to conduct its own international trade policy while maintaining a frictionless UK/EU border and maintaining free movement of labour between the UK and the EU subject to various controls and other policy changes. If it proves impossible to negotiate a deal of this kind, most Assembly members preferred the UK to remain closely aligned to the EU rather than to cut loose. Crucially for the next stage of Brexit negotiations, members said the UK should stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union rather than leave the EU with no deal on future relations.’
Interestingly, of the assembly members who attended the final weekend of deliberations, 25 had voted Leave, while 22 voted Remain and three did not vote.
However, there are real dangers and problems with the idea of using a citizens’ assembly to sort out where we go next with the Brexit omnishambles.
First, there is the question of who decides the assembly’s powers and remit. Should it consider the relevant evidence of the impact of ‘austerity’ policies and industrial decline on certain areas for example? And given the argument that climate change would be better combatted by united action and research efforts multi-nation blocs such as the EU, should the assembly be hearing from Friends of the Earth and David Attenborough as well as Boris Johnson and Chukka Umunna? Should it have power of final decision or merely provide evidence of preferences and ideas to help our executive and legislative branches agree a way through, safe in the knowledge that it’s aligned with a ‘mini-public who’ve been forced to wrestle with the complex trade-offs? Once we’ve opened the ‘democratic deliberative’ toolbox for such an important question, where does that leave parliamentary democracy? How do we articulate the relationship between citizens’ assemblies (one form of democracy) and parliament (another form and technically sovereign, according to our constitution)?
Second, there is the problem of securing politicians’ ‘buy in’: as Tim Hughes (Director of Involve) puts it: ‘the challenge to any citizens’ assembly in the current context would be what happens beyond its four walls. Would politicians be willing to cede their power? Would it be allowed space and time to do its work? Would those who disagreed with its conclusions be prepared to accept them? Citizens’ assemblies do not bypass the need for political leadership and consensus – they just require a different type. Are our politicians ready to show it?’
Third, even if there was ‘buy in’ on paper from the ‘powers that be’, what about the wider public? In a recent Talking Politics podcast , the current Director of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (Matthew Taylor) puts it well when he points out that citizen-led deliberative democracy is very far from being a ‘habit’ in this country. Taylor rightly wants us to try it more and to learn about it until it becomes habitual. But he’s worried that a citizens’ assembly to sort out Brexit is a bad place to start: it will fall foul of a general and widespread lack of understanding about how (well) the process works. My hero Damon Albarn fell victim to this on Twitter, apparently.
Finally, and despite ‘citizens’ assemblies’ being an older idea than the word demokratia itself, we are still in a ‘honeymoon period’ for this ‘new wave’ of ‘deliberative democracy’. Social science has established a wealth of problems which can occur if group decision-making isn’t well designed: further polarization of views between two extremes and lack of consensus; ‘domination’ by a faction or those who are rhetorically adept; bias towards ‘common knowledge’; ‘motivated’ reasoning (where you select or create reasons to support your initial desires rather than being genuinely open to changing your preferences)… I could go on. The flag-waver for deliberative democracy claims that these problems can be ‘designed out’ of citizens’ assemblies. But it looks to me as if the evidence base for that being true just isn’t big enough yet. In any case, and as an advocate of deliberative democracy myself, it would surely be unwise to just assume that all problems and threats have been neutralized by current ‘best practice’. And we would do well not to over-promise on what citizens’ assemblies can deliver by way of ‘performance’ and solving problems of disengagement from, disillusionment with, and distrust of, our current forms of democratic politics.
The importance of Classical Athens
The example of Athenian democracy and its wider cultural context can really help with these problems, especially the achievement of wider public ‘buy in’ and what we can expect in terms of the capacity of citizens’ assemblies to do a better job of democracy than (say) the House of Commons.
Matthew Taylor is right to say that we need to create a deliberative-democratic ‘habit’ among citizens. But the question is how to do that? Lots of laudable initiatives are under way. But Athenian democracy only created, maintained and developed further its deliberative democratic ‘habit’ by embedding public participation and citizen responsibility at the very deepest levels of its cultural life and social organization. Thus, younger citizens would have witnessed and participated in local councils before becoming eligible for the ‘lot’ to become members of the deliberative steering council (the Boulē). Members of that Council were always drawn from different regions of Attica and mixed together via the tribal system: each tribe contained people from all over the place. But ‘tribes’ also participated in lavish choral competitions against each other at the Dionysian festivals, and in athletic contests at various festivals. Thousands of citizens sat and watched plays and ceremonies, just as thousands participated in their main democratic assembly. Juries in certain criminal cases could be in the hundreds. The choruses of plays and the processions at festivals also relied on participation by many ordinary citizens. Citizens alsso came together at countless important religious and civic ceremonies. Some slaves performed important ‘civil service’ functions but most planning and decision-making by boards and committees (e.g. for organizing warship building or running a festival) were populated by ordinary citizens. Some were appointed by lot, and the ‘generals’ (like Pericles and Themistocles) were elected for a yearly term of office. Other officials or experts seem to have been delegated authority by the Council. So, citizen participation in deliberation and decision (or witnessing it first hand) were built into a citizen’s life experience from an early age. It was even there in the shape and size of many the buildings which you can still see when you visit Athens and it’s there too in the excavated remains of different theatres and meeting-places across the demes of Attica. The Athenians deliberately designed their theatres, assembly spaces, courtrooms and council-buildings so that citizen-participants were visible to each other: a good way to facilitate debate and inclusiveness. It is certainly there in the many Athenian assembly decrees which survive. They usually begin with the formula ‘resolved by the Council (Boulē) and the people (dēmos)’.
So, we need to find our analogues to this structural and cultural underpinning to Athens’ democracy. Matthew Taylor has spoken of deliberative democracy’s ‘aesthetics’: there’s something beautiful about citizens from all walks of life coming together in a well-designed assembly process to listen, learn and deliberate slowly towards a set of proposals – even when the result may be a range of opposed options rather than consensus. But I’d suggest that we need to build the beauty of deliberation into all aspects of our culture: into our primary and secondary school activities and curricular, into radical forms of theatrical, cinematic and other forms of participation and much more besides.
What about ‘expectations’ and ‘problems’? Athenian democracy achieved a great deal and Attica was arguably more prosperous than other states with different constitutional and cultural arrangements precisely because it was a deliberative democracy. But, of course, it relied on slave labour, and didn’t allow women to participate in political decision-making at all. It also built a ruthless and rapacious empire during the fifth century. And beyond, that, the Athenian ‘council and the people’ made some disastrous errors of judgement: the Sicilian expedition and perhaps the whole Peloponnesian War itself. They even allowed themselves to be taken over by two oligarchic coups and ultimately failed to resist the rise of Macedonian power. Despite making many good adjustments to the ‘design’ of their democracy in the light of bad outcomes, the Athenians couldn’t always get things right.
By looking at all this in detail, and at what contemporary Athenian writers. playwrights and orators said about it, we can learn a lot for our own coming ‘deliberative turn’. I also believe that ancient philosophical thinkers such as Aristotle also developed further some important ideas which had their roots in Athens’ deliberative culture. For me, a crucial lesson from these ideas is that a good deliberative culture stems, not just from excellent ‘institutional design’ but also from individuals‘ cultivation of good skills in practical reasoning and ‘deliberative’ and ‘intellectual’ virtues (e.g. evidence-based reasoning, listening to different views, perspective-taking, trying to be more objective, systematic thinking about options). Watch this space for more…