Could we rebuild our post-Brexit democracy by modelling it on the jury system?

Andreas Whittam Smith, founding editor of the Independent, argued recently that ‘a cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed’:

In fact, the jury system, with its random selection of jurors from the local community and their thorough briefing as result of the hearing and challenging of evidence, has often been examined as providing a model for democracy. David Van Reybrouck has just written a book, Against Elections: the Case for Democracy. He argues against what he calls “electoral fundamentalism”, an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections, and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy.

Whittam Smith read my book A People’s Parliament when it was published in 2008 and wrote to me saying that he agreed with the general thrust of the argument, but he clearly disagrees with the title of Van Reybrouck’s book, as he describes himself as an ‘electoral fundamentalist’. David, of course, does not wish to replace elections with sortition, and this would suggest to me that Kleroterians would be well advised to avoid rhetorical language that might lead to such a conclusion.

20 Responses

  1. Hi Keith,

    Are you sure David van Reybrouck does not want to replace elections by sortition? He does seem enthusiastic about Terry’s multiple jury system. My impression was that he would like to see that in the long term but settles down for a more modest reform in the short run. That seems also the way his book was perceived in the Netherlands, where it got a fairly nuanced reception in quality newspapers.

    Paul Lucardie


  2. Hi Paul, I haven’t read it, I was reliant on the reviews in the Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Financial Times and Democratic Audit, see:

    plus Yoram’s (sarcastic):

    “[van Reybrouck-style sortition] is the way to reinvigorate the tired democracy that is so dear to our heart – to return to that golden age when the masses knew their proper place following their leaders’ lead and adopting their leaders’ priorities.”

    Have you read the book, and do you consider that Van Reybrouck is in fact seeking to abolish elections?


  3. Hi Keith,

    Sorry for not replying sooner. Yes, I have read the book, we discussed it in a small group of philosophers and social scientists about a year ago.
    The way I interpret Van Reybrouck, he proposes a dual system first – but he calls it ‘a temporary plea for a bi-representative system’ (sorry for my clumsy translation, but even in Dutch ‘tijdelijk pleidooi’ sounds a bit strange).
    On p.145 of the Dutch edition he writes: ‘The bi-representative system is at the moment the best remedy for the Democratic Tiredness Syndrome .. (..) Maybe this dual system should give way to a completely allotted system after some time (stage 5 with Bouricius), democracy is after all never completed’.
    So I may be wrong but I believe Van Reybrouck would like to abolish elections in the long run, but is careful for practical as well as tactical reasons, hence ‘at the moment’ and ‘maybe’.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Paul,

    >I believe Van Reybrouck would like to abolish elections in the long run

    Interesting, then the reviewers were right to dismiss his proposal as “bonkers”. Note, however, John Keane’s view that “there is a deep prevarication in his work about whether or not elected legislatures should be replaced in their entirety.” If you are right then Yoram might need to revise his view that van Reybrouck style sortition would be “a return to that golden age when the masses knew their proper place following their leaders’ lead and adopting their leaders’ priorities.”


  5. Sutherland is again demonstrating an inability to grasp simple points. Van Reybrouck explains to the elites that elections are not serving their interests anymore (as demonstrated by Trump, Brexit), and that sortition is the way to regain control. Whether the two should be used in combination or elections should be discarded altogether is a technical detail to be determined later.


  6. Yoram:

    >Van Reybrouck explains to the elites that elections are not serving their interests anymore (as demonstrated by Trump, Brexit), and that sortition is the way to regain control.

    Goodness me, that presents us with quite a tactical opportunity. There’s a saying in our country that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth (and you should certainly never kick it in the teeth) even if (in your opinion) it’s a donkey.


  7. *** Last June, Arnaud Montebourg, French socialist politician, former minister, the third man in the last socialist primary, proposed to convert the French upper house of Parliament, the « Sénat », into an allotted assembly ; the first instance of a high rank French politician proposing sortition for a major central political institution. But he was careful to say that this allotted house should not have a legislative power, but should have a role of supervision (French « contrôle », which does not mean « control ») : about use of the public money, about the operating of public services, and, maybe more ominously, about the way the government honours its commitments. Source : June 06, 2016.
    *** Such a proposal must please Keith Sutherland. And it pleases me too, as, if it is not democracy-through-minipublics, this Senate would be dêmos-acting-through-minipublic, which, with the idea of the sovereignty of the dêmos, is one of the two concepts founding a modern dêmokratia. And if the general mind is familiarized with the second concept, it is not with the first.


  8. Welcome back Andre, we’ve missed you!

    Yes I would be very pleased with such a proposal. My original opposition to allotted senates was on account of the paradox of having a (historically) aristocratic house chosen by sortition and a democratic house constituted by election. But this is just a terminological quibble that is of no importance. I think the proposal should also appeal to pragmatists, even if they object to the elected house retaining legislative powers.


  9. *** Kenneth Rogoff « Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University » wrote an interesting study about what he calls the « lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union » (see wwwproject-syndicate). He ventured into Classical Antiquity, considering Sparta, then Athens, which « had implemented the purest historical example of democracy. All classes were given equal votes (albeit only males). Ultimately, though, after some catastrophic war decisions, Athenians saw a need to give more power to independent bodies. »
    *** We note the distinguished Harvard professor omits that the Athenian « independent bodies » were alloted juries …


  10. I remarkable oversight!


  11. Sorry, I meant a remarkable oversight — in fact quite extraordinary, as the implication is that they were elite (elected) bodies. Wasn’t this in fact the case with financial panels?


  12. *** Clearly Rogoff was thinking of Athenian « independent bodies » able to block the decisions of the Assembly voters (assimilated to Brexit referendum voters) or to decide the issue. That could only allude to legislative or judicial juries. It is therefore strange not to remind the alloted character of these juries, which is not known of all Rogoff readers.
    *** If we follow the Second Athenian Democracy logic, the decision of belonging to the European Union, with the corresponding curtailing of sovereignty, is of a legislative, or rather supra-legislative, character, and therefore a legislative jury would have the last word ; or a judicial jury, if the act of belonging is attacked as unconstitutional.
    *** The financial magistracies and the military ones were the one elected « magistracies » in the Second Athenian Democracy model. They had executive responsability, they were not « independent bodies » in Rogoff’s sense. Their case is interesting from another point of view. Euboulos, as member of the Theoric Fund, and later even more clearly Lykourgos in the new magistracy of Controller of Finances, were « ministers of the Finances », statesmen whose financial policy was approved by the dêmos and who were given the task of enforcing this policy. As Colbert was minister of Finances of king Louis XIV.


  13. >It is therefore strange not to remind the alloted character of these juries

    Yes indeed, perhaps a deliberate conflation with the (elected) financial magistracies. P.S. The decision when/whether to trigger Brexit negotiations is an executive one, although the terms of disengagement would have to be endorsed by an Act of Parliament. The referendum result has no legal status.


  14. André,

    Thanks for pointing out the Montebourg proposals – very interesting. Any responses by the press or the political class? How did the Chuardists treat this proposal?

    Regarding Rogoff: such willful deception or self-deception is not unusual. Eliding or minimizing the role of allotted bodies in the Athenian system is part of the modern dogma of democracy.


  15. >> About the reactions to Montebourg proposal.
    *** This last spring for personal reasons I had no time for my kleroterian interests, therefore I did not follow the events. But it seems there were very few reactions from the media and political class, or from the Chouartsphere. I can only quote a (low intellectual level) criticism by François Jost on
    *** If my estimation is right, this quietness is strange if we compare to the previous case of Ségolène Royal’s « citizen juries » in 2006, which aroused violent reactions across the political spectrum.
    *** Why such a difference ? Montebourg’s proposal was more carefully designed, as he did not suggest overseeing of the elected representatives, but of the government – the politicians did not see the proposal personally aggressive.
    *** Montebourg is personally known, but he has no strong political network, and he has many adversaries, including in the left ; many may choose to ignore his proposals to avoid giving him publicity (they prefer to attack his style).
    *** Others maybe don’t like to give publicity to the sortition idea. And I think they are right, for them it is the best choice, as the main problem for sortition is to re-enter the political mental space it was expelled from two centuries and half ago.
    *** The Chouartsphere seems to entertain a high level of hate and contempt for the Establishment ; maybe they are not interested by whatever comes from a politician who, even somewhat « outlying », is a member of the political class.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. More info about the proposal of an allotted Senate in France
    *** Montebourg was a close ally and the assistant of Ségolène Royal during the 2006 presidential election, where she proposed “citizen juries” to oversee the elected representatives. He may have taken the sortition idea from the circle surrounding the candidate.
    *** The proposal may be linked to a thought movement of “moderate” supporters of sortition which has some influence in French academic and media. Sortition is viewed as a way of “democratizing the democracy”, as says the professor Yves Sintomer. It is included in a more general undertaking of saving the polyarchic system, seen as threatened by the disinterest and distrust of the common citizens. It is only one of the ways to “democratizing the democracy”: Sintomer mentions likewise “associating the organized actors of the civil society”. I would think that this renovation of the polyarchic system is linked to heightening the clout of the lobbies linked to the culture elite. A good result of this movement is to give some opening to the concept of sortition in the media (a full page in « Le Monde » July 07, which mentions the Montebourg proposal).
    *** A specific organized movement exists on Internet (I don’t know its importance) around the “Manifeste pour un Sénat citoyen” (= Manifesto for a citizen Senate”). See Actually, it is not only concerned by the Senate. It asserts the following general principle: “for any established political power, government or elected assembly, must exist an allotted citizen assembly which questions, makes proposals and oversees this power” – that for every level, European, national, regional, local etc… [I translate by « to oversee » the French « contrôler » which in purist French means only « to monitor », « to check » but by influence of the English verb « to control » takes often a stronger sense.] Here we are close to a theoretical dualizing of the legitimacy.


  17. >”democratising the democracy . . . saving the polyarchical system”.

    For those of us not fixated on overthrowing capitalism (oops, I mean electoral democracy) that seems like a laudable and realistic goal. I’m a big fan of Sintomer’s work on sortition (but not his attempt to associate the organized actors of civil society — they’re quite good at doing that already).


  18. Andre – again, very interesting. A post on this would be much appreciated.

    Again it appears that the francophone world is much farther along the way to having sortition as a political alternative to elections than the anglophone world is. It is worth noting that this is the case despite the fact that there has been no abundance of Australian-style “experiments” with citizen juries in the francophone world.


  19. *** Keith Sutherland wrote : « I’m a big fan of Sintomer’s work on sortition (but not his attempt to associate the organized actors of civil society — they’re quite good at doing that already). »
    *** My quotation about « the organized actors of civil society » comes from an interesting interview (, July 01 2016).
    *** Yes, Sintomer’s work on sortition is interesting, and useful as it helps to get back sortition into the contemporary political mind. But it is interesting, too, to see the political and social background. I suspect that « the organized actors of civil society » whose clout he wants to heighten are those linked to the culture elite, and the proposals of sortition coming from these circles must be considered with this in mind. For instance, there are procedures which could unduly heighten the weight of the culture elite on the minipublics.


  20. >> Yoram Gat
    Well, there is some truth in the concept of “national genius” (which can be rationaly explained by anthropological and historical factors). France has been since a long time a “political nation par excellence” (Karl Marx). And a nation prone to theoretical elaboration – more than pragmatism, and often criticized for that. Note that sometimes the pragmatist nations follow (the USA did not accept the metric system, but there is some degree of metrication in the UK, I think). France political centralism is, likewise, an obstacle to political experimentation.


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