An unpublished column on sortition and Brexit

From around January this year I’ve tried to get the column below published – in the Guardian UK where my previous column was published. Unfortunately, and even after endless cajoling via the Guardian at this end, I couldn’t get a reply which is piss poor but there you go. Martin Wolf tried for me at the FT. At least they responded – but with a ‘no’, which is fair enough given the oversupply of articles on Brexit. Anyway as it fades into irrelevance and the Brexit Brouhaha Burbles on I thought I’d pop it up here.

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum looms over the career politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster as the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

It’s taken over thirty months of thrashing through actual options – as opposed to the wild partisan imaginings in the campaign – for a ghastly, if entirely foreseeable realisation to dawn. Despite the people’s clear instruction to Leave, any specific way of doing so would command far less than the 48 percent vote for Remain.

In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II, the institutional imperatives of political combat ensure the politicians perform rather than deliberate. Not only Corbyn, but extraordinarily enough, May has clung to fantasies about getting a better deal, though the end game will presumably see her change her tune.

How did it come to this?

A year ago, I argued for a ‘Brexit Deliberation Day’ in which ten citizens’ juries of around 50 people selected, as legal juries are, by lot from local communities around the country would consider Brexit. In such circumstances, citizens’ opinions move systematically as they better understand the issues in discussion with peers.

Isn’t this a job for parliament? Parliament forsook deliberation for ‘the numbers’ as the party system consolidated in the nineteenth century. In the last half century the struggle for the consent of the governed has become as professionalised, as optimised to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers.

Like other aspects of our fast food culture – the linkbait to deliver clicks, internet and tabloid trolling to deliver outrage – it’s slowly poisoning us. Today’s politico-entertainment complex makes parliamentary deliberation impossible – as rare and pointless as playing chess with a badger.

Many people supported my proposal but said it was too late. It should have happened before the people voted. Indeed: As it does in the US State of Oregon in which citizens juries deliberate and advise the electorate before any citizen initiated referendum: As has occurred in Ireland’s recent string of successful referendums.

Whenever my proposal has been considered by those with the funds to make it happen, the answer’s been the same. It is too late now. Instead they’ve funded the usual political campaigns – with all their self-righteousness, manipulation and polarising propaganda that the pro-Brexit vote was a protest against – however careless, however futile that vote was. And here we are. As each day passes, the need to find a new way grows more, not less urgent. If you’re focused on March 29 thinking it’s too late to organise a Brexit Deliberation Day, you’re probably right, though a citizen assembly chosen by lot is still possible and would reflect the people’s considered will in contrast to the polls.

But this crisis will morph into new dramas well beyond March 29th with no obvious end in sight. And, beyond Brexit, modern democracies are turning to self-harm with increasing regularity. Pursuing similar imperatives as Corbyn and May, the greatest achievement of Australia’s parliamentarians of 2013 was abolishing carbon pricing against the better judgement of an overwhelming majority of them. It’s given up on climate change, paralysed the energy market generating soaring energy prices and robs the budget of $10 billion each year. The Republicans in Congress are waving through a trade war against their better judgement. Who would have believed it?

We must look beyond March 29th if we’re not to waste this crisis. It gives Britain the chance to begin the process of healing its own democracy and showing others how. From a citizens’ assembly, a cadre would emerge that was well informed on Brexit and, as a group, enjoyed popular legitimacy as embodying ordinary Britons’ considered will. It could be polled to determine ordinary people’s considered opinion as developments unfold.

Imagine that cadre doing what a citizens’ assembly on nuclear power in South Australia did, appointing representatives of the best among them as spokespeople. That council of citizen jurors could have been operating, shadowing negotiations in Brussels, and parliament, shaming our representatives to put our interests first.

Surveying the scene on another occasion when Britain was searching for its soul, and fighting for its life, George Orwell wrote “The past is fighting the future and we have two years, a year, possibly only a few months, to see to it that the future wins”.

Whether they knew it or not, the apes were in the same situation as they stared at the inscrutable black monolith that came among them.

It’s the situation Britons again find themselves in today.

7 Responses

  1. Nick,

    As a pro-remain anti-populist I think you need to be a little careful with your choice of illustrations:

    the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

    as optimised to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers

    as it might be thought you were comparing Brexiteers to the “apes” who dine at McDonalds (including myself). This is particularly the case as you suggest later in your piece that elected representatives are obliged — against their better judgment — to pander to the wishes and prejudices of ignorant electors in order to secure their support. If that is the case then there is no particular reason to think that a representative sample of citizens would decide in a [more enlightened] manner or that if their deliberations led them to [more enlightened] conclusions that the target population that they are representing would view the decision as legitimately representing their own preferences.

    PS as you know I published my own proposal for a citizen assembly on Brexit well before the referendum:


  2. coding mistake on blockquote — only the first two paras are excerpts from Nick’s post. [Fixed -YG]


  3. Hmmm

    Keith you do seem to be a sensitive soul

    Why the apes should represent Brexiters more than remainers is a mystery to me.

    I enjoy an occasional McDonalds. And they’ve optimised the product for their profits, not my wellbeing. Or yours.


  4. >I enjoy an occasional McDonalds. And they’ve optimised the product for their profits, not my wellbeing. Or yours.

    Yes, I recall Adam Smith saying something along those lines.


  5. I’m in Canada, and I have often wondered about the Brexit vote. Why was such a close tally considered definitive? Canada would have split, Quebec would have separated, in the 1980’s if we had not had written into our constitution a very high bar for such a drastic move. Our referendum took place at the height of separatist sentiment, and since then the advantages of unity have become clearer and now are very unpopular in Quebec. Surely at least 60 or 70 percent of the population of Britain should have been required to withdraw from the EU. The time to have a citizen’s assembly should have been before the vote took place, not after.


  6. I think the government believed there was no chance of the vote going in the favour of Brexit, so a simple majority was required to “lance the boil” of Euroscepticism within the Conservative Party. If a supermajority was required and the vote went in favour of Brexit but below the threshold, then Brexiteers (led by UKIP) would claim that it was democratically illegitimate.

    >The time to have a citizen’s assembly should have been before the vote took place, not after.

    Agreed. Here’s a column I published in April 2016

    This followed on from a short piece in the Spectator. Unfortunately nobody took any interest, and now it’s too late.


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