Amidst all this talk of ‘cross-party collaboration,’ it seems to have been forgotten that political parties and politicians are to blame for landing us in this Brexit mess.
According to the most recent estimate, 73% of Parliament voted for Remain, as against 48% of the electorate. MPs are also far more likely than the general population to have attended private school, to have been to university and to hold liberal views on important matters such as immigration and the death penalty. Building consensus in an essentially homogenous group does very little for society as a whole. The UK needs to find another way.
What are the options then?
One way to do this would be to run public consultation exercises, designed to collect the views of normal people and apply them to post-Brexit policy-making.
But such exercises are too often used as means to market policies which have already been agreed in Whitehall. All too often they descend into politicised ‘show trials’ like the French debate on national identity in 2009, which was seen on the left as a political ploy by President Sarkozy to bolster his support among right-wing voters in the upcoming election. Most importantly, in traditional public engagement, the citizenry is divorced from the decision-making process – they influence but do not determine policies.
The sham of public consultations in a sense epitomises the UK’s democratic deficit. Politicians who do not share the views of their constituents pretend to get ‘the people’ involved while retaining actual policy-making power. A better option is to actually get the people involved…
In a Citizen Jury, small groups of roughly 12 people meet to discuss policy issues in a structured manner and reach consensual agreement – exactly the kind now advocated by politicians from all parties. The theoretical potential of these discussions has been elaborated for several decades, since they were first trialled in the USA in the 1970s. Now, however, psychologists have proven their vale experimentally. Numerous studies show that face-to-face contact is the best way to foster cooperation between different groups: each side demonstrates verbally and visually that they are willing to cooperate, which in turn encourages the other side to compromise and find the middle ground.
Maybe I’m a bit of a romantic, but as a liberal I stand by the principle that every view has a right to be heard and that most people have the capacity to understand the other side, if given a chance to hear it…
There are real issues to be discussed here – values to be traded off and prioritised – but a Parliamentary elite comprised of university and privately-educated liberals is not best-placed to do this. The rallying cry of ‘take back control,’ which inspired so many voters, will not be realised within the constraints of our Parliamentary democracy. More ambition is required. In the 18th century, Britain’s Parliament redefined modern democracy; in the 21st, it can do so again.