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Don’t be fooled by citizens’ assemblies There is no democracy without equal participation

Remainers like to label the Leave vote as undemocratic. Credit: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Remainers like to label the Leave vote as undemocratic. Credit: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

July 26, 2019   12 mins

Over the past few years, it has become quite fashionable to speak of ‘threats to democracy’. For many journalists and academics, the source of those threats is often crystal clear: Trump, Brexit, and somewhere on the margins, the non-English-speaking Alternative für Deutschland, Marine le Pen and Viktor Orban.

However, while none of this resurgent traditionalism is exactly up my street, being as I am of a decidedly more liberal persuasion, I don’t see it as the biggest threat to democracy. Having considered the issue for the better part of my life, I believe that the biggest threat to democracy is the belief among the current societal elite that what they want and what democracy is are the same thing – and that tweaking the rules of the game to get what you want is therefore right, just and somehow unto itself democratic.

This trend that sees democracy as a set of particular decisions, rather than just as a method for making decisions, has been well under way for some time and tends to divide the world between ‘informed’, ‘correct’ decisions, and ‘uninformed’ ‘incorrect’ decisions. ‘Correct’ decisions are automatically democratic; ‘incorrect’ ones are not.

One of the ways that is currently in vogue for ensuring ‘informed’, ‘correct’ decisions is to hold so-called citizens’ assemblies, a democratic ‘innovation’ that many leaders currently feel assured will bring them the results that they want.

You may have heard of citizen assemblies. They are all the rage in academic circles and some of that has seeped out into the political sphere. Conservative politician Rory Stewart proposed one to ‘bridge the gap between the referendum result and parliament’ on Brexit, for example, and Extinction Rebellion has demanded that a binding assembly be held on how the UK can tackle climate change and ecological justice.

For the uninitiated, citizens’ assemblies, or citizens’ juries as they are sometimes called, consist of randomly selected people who are gathered to listen to presentations from academics and interest groups, generally over the course of a few weekends, and then to make legislative recommendations or (according to some variants) legislate directly themselves. University College London held such an assembly on the topic of Brexit in 2017 and its 50 members decided that their vision for Brexit included ‘a bespoke UK/EU trade deal and a customs union that would allow the UK to conduct its own international trade policy while maintaining a frictionless UK/EU border’, but that if a deal could not be reached, they would choose to remain in the single market and customs union.

Since then, citizens’ assemblies have been a firm favourite among some Remainers, as a way to ‘break deadlock’ over Brexit and get people to make ‘considered’ decisions. They contrast this to the 2016 Brexit referendum Leave vote, which they view as the result of ill-considered or unconsidered votes and which is therefore, according to some, essentially undemocratic.

Touted as a participatory breakthrough that empowers the average voter, there are a lot of myths circling about citizens’ assemblies – and particularly about those that have been held in Ireland. British politicians and intellectuals apparently feel themselves entitled to just blithely repeat these myths as a justification for holding such assemblies on all manner of decisions in Britain.

The favoured narrative is that prior to 2018 the Irish were a mess of conflicting ideas on the issue of liberalising the country’s restrictive abortion laws (according to Extinction Rebellion we had, in fact, reached ‘deadlock’ on this issue). Then, mercy of mercies, the government called a citizens’ assembly in which ordinary, randomly-selected people were finally ‘informed’, revolutionising our understanding of abortion and leading to the obviously correct move to liberalise abortion law in our long and unidirectional march to enlightenment.

This transformative goodness could happen for Brexit and Climate Change, too.

Now, one of the more grievous errors with this understanding is that it confuses electoral gridlock (which is pretty much the status quo on most things) with citizen gridlock, which per definition is only possible if you have an even number of voters who are exactly divided on a topic – a circumstance that I have no example of ever occurring in real life.

The ‘division’ on abortion in Ireland was, for some time, between a sizeable majority of pro-choice voters on one hand and a minority of pro-life voters on the other. The minority, being conservative, generally give their votes to one of the two major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, and they are vocal about where their priorities lie. They will, for example, explicitly tell politicians that they, regretfully, cannot vote for anyone who is pro-choice. I know, because I ran in the 2016 election, and plenty of people said it to me, a few of them even being so kind as to pray for my soul.

Parliamentary seats in Ireland are often won by very few votes and each of the big parties boasted a certain contingent of potentially single-issue pro-life voters. For this reason, neither party wanted to touch the issue – no candidate wants to lose 10% of their vote share because their pro-life voters stay at home. They simply can’t afford to, despite the fact that 10% (or 30% for that matter) is clearly not a majority. This is how blocking minorities work in electoral systems on all kinds of issues. It tells you absolutely nothing about what the majority of citizens think and thus cannot be used as a proxy for inferring citizen gridlock, ignorance or confusion.

Having lived here for over a dozen years, I would say that the number of people who were in favour of liberalising abortion was certainly over 50% and actually closer to around 2/3 for some time – a supermajority, in other words. When I ran a digital democracy exercise asking people to tell me their stance on abortion two years before it was put to the vote, 68% said that a referendum should be held in order to loosen the laws, while some polls put the numbers in favour of liberalisation as high as 80%.

The citizens’ assembly that debated the pros and cons of removing the 8th amendment (the Constitutional provision that made liberalisation impossible) was not called by people who were devoted to liberalising abortion laws and felt the need to ‘educate’ the populace over to their point of view. Many of the more outspoken pro-choice politicians wanted a referendum to be called at the earliest convenient point because public opinion was already in their favour. If you peruse the parliamentary records you will see that sentiment clearly reflected in the debate on the citizens’ assembly regarding abortion. The citizens’ assembly delayed the referendum by a few years and helped the major parties mitigate the damage with their pro-life voters by allowing them to distance themselves from the entire process.

Thus, the principle in operation in Ireland on abortion was a completely different one than is the case regarding Brexit in the UK. In Ireland, a blocking minority was using the electoral process to punch above its weight, ensure that its votes de facto counted more than those of others and keep abortion off the agenda. Whereas the pivotal issue in regards to Brexit is that there was a majority vote in a referendum that neither parliament nor the losing side accepts.

The Irish assembly and subsequent referendum de facto circumvented the pro-life minority by implementing direct democracy on this issue. Remainers want to use an assembly in Britain to try to circumvent a majority by taking a direct democratic decision and somehow befuddling it via assembly.

This is a very different kind of ‘deadlock’ and I would like to stress that it is not a good idea to start using things like citizens’ assemblies to try to circumvent clearly expressed majority will, because in doing so you are setting a precedent for circumventing democracy whenever you don’t like it. And anyone can play that game.

The other myth about Ireland is that the citizens’ assembly had a major impact on the outcome and quality of the abortion referendum that followed it and that had the Brexit referendum (or other issues) benefited from something similar, the post-Brexit debate would not be so embittered.

According to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown writing in The Guardian:

‘The handling of the Irish abortion referendum is evidence of the power and potential of citizens’ assemblies. It could have been a bitter and toxic debate dominated by extremists on both sides. But in part because a representative group – half initially pro-abortion, half against – talked the issues through, exploring differences, asking questions of experts and interacting with each other on their fears and hopes, they managed to defuse the controversies. And they found common ground between devout faith and resolute feminism in an outcome that astonished the world and that everyone accepted.’

Now, part of what Brown said is point-blank invention – Assembly members were not selected according to their views on abortion. That’s just something he made up.

However, leaving that aside, while I realize this may be hard for British people to accept, because your media has conditioned you to believe that we’re all running around with ArmaLites 24/7, Ireland’s pretty chill. Having lived through it, I’m not sure there was anything unusually polite or reasonable about the abortion referendum. As a small country, we are rife with both extreme nepotism and the kind of stifling small-town behaviour-policing that liberals claim to hate so much. For better or worse, it has a suppressing effect on histrionics.

There have been 13 referenda since I moved here and while most of them were not preceded by a citizens’ assembly, they have all been similarly low-key. An effect of the kind Brown proposes is hard to discern.

Beyond that, a further reason as to why the citizens’ assembly had little (possibly zero) effect on the tone of the debate was that many Irish people weren’t aware that the assembly existed. I canvassed regularly for a yes vote in the referendum and during that time I explicitly addressed the issue of the citizens’ assembly with the hundreds of people I spoke to. Although the vast majority of those people had already made up their minds on how they would vote (unsurprising since abortion has been a live topic of debate for, as one woman put it to me, ‘forty years’), very, very few even dimly recognized the term ‘citizens’ assembly’ even when I prompted them.

And I wasn’t exactly shocked at that – only 100 people out of our 3.3 million voters took part (99 if you exclude the chair). That is one in every 30,000 voters or 0.003% of the voting population. There are approximately 50 million voters in Britain, so a 100-member strong citizens’ assembly would be 0.0002% of the voting population. The numbers involved in citizens’ assemblies are thus extremely low when you think about the total number of voters in the country. 100 people may sound like a lot, but a single tube on the London Victoria line carries 864 passengers. It takes a lot more than a citizens’ assembly to really involve people in political decisions.

Moreover, having belaboured the abortion issue on primetime television, talk radio and newspapers up and down the land for years, few people decided to glue themselves to YouTube to watch videos of citizens’ assembly presentations in order to ‘inform’ themselves. Many citizens’ assembly YouTube videos have little more than 100 views, with even the most controversial ones garnering fewer than 10,000 views.

Remember, there are 4.5 million people living here and 3.3 million voters. ‘Citizens’ Assembly’, I think we can assume, is not going to be the next ‘Game of Thrones’ hit in terms of viewership.

Ireland’s yes vote is attributable to one fact alone: most Irish people wanted to liberalise abortion, and this trend has been in the works for a long time for a number of different reasons. It is not attributable to a small-scale deliberative democracy experiment that most people were barely, if at all, conscious of, but is supposed nonetheless to have had some dramatic and ennobling effect on public opinion.

Perhaps even more important, however, is to remember where all this is headed, because some people in Britain seem to forget that the assembly was just a low-key warm-up round for a referendum. This is the biggest and most relevant of all myths – that somehow the citizens’ assembly solved something that a referendum couldn’t and therefore there is some kind of strained relevance to Brexit and other allegedly divisive issues.

The citizens’ assembly, contrary to Brown’s assertions, didn’t reach any kind of a comfy ultimate compromise that everyone could live with at all. They came up with more than a dozen recommendations, but the ultimate and only relevant question was whether or not the 8th amendment (which restricted abortion) should be repealed, which would allow the houses of parliament to legislate on the issue.

The referendum was ultimately, as it had to be, a straight Yes/No vote, and the pro-lifers turned up for it to the tune of over 700,000 people, nearly one-quarter of the electorate. They wanted to keep the 8th amendment in – no one ‘compromised’ with them on that.

The idea that life is sacrosanct and should be protected under all circumstances and the idea that humans should, in any way, shape or form, be allowed to make their own choices, including on such topics as termination and euthanasia are not, at the end of the day, compatible.

Democracy isn’t about achieving ends that everyone agrees on or even finds tolerable. That’s impossible. It’s about making choices that everyone is literally forced to abide by because those choices become law, and that law is in turn enforced by police and interpreted by courts. Democracies are intentionally constructed to only require a majority of votes cast. Thus, that one is unhappy with a result is no indicator of its democratic or undemocratic nature.

And personally I believe that is a good thing, because any law depends a great deal on its real or perceived legitimacy and I’m at a loss to understand how that can be achieved without some process that allows each citizen a vote, whether that be directly (my preference) or through voting for elected representatives.

Seeking to get around either of those mechanisms via a citizens’ assembly – involving, in the grand scheme of things, next to no one – means that one is actually setting an absurdly low bar for participation.

When it comes to legitimacy some citizens’ assembly advocates, especially those who would like to overturn Brexit, seem to wield both this absurdly low bar and an absurdly high one at the same time. If pro-Remain advocates, for example, want to say that a margin of 1.3 million votes was too tight to be decisive – with a 72% turnout of registered voters (or 65% of the entire voting age population) – in the Brexit referendum, I do wonder how a citizens’ assembly resting on only a few people perhaps changing their votes could have any credence.

I also wonder what they’d think of some of our liberalising referenda over here in Ireland.

The 8th amendment abortion referendum wasn’t the first of those (yet another reason as to why it did not exactly strike as a bolt from the blue).

There is no minimum turn-out required on referendum votes in Ireland. Turn-out for the most recent referendum on reducing the waiting period for divorce was below 51%, while fewer than 44% bothered to vote in the referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. Ireland’s 1995 divorce referendum passed by a mere 9000 votes (that’s a vote of 50.28% in favour). I’ve learned that Remainers dislike being reminded of these events, especially in response to the allegation that the Brexit vote did not enjoy a clear enough majority. After all, we have often been unable to turn out as clear a victory for some of the outcomes here that they agree with the most.

The reason these votes are accepted in Ireland, despite sometimes sluggish turn-out and close outcomes, is that everyone did get a chance to vote, whether they ultimately chose to vote for, against or abstain. As far as I am aware, this method has never yet delivered consensus, but it has delivered legitimacy, which is much more important.

Proponents of citizens’ assemblies will tell you that the number of participants involved don’t matter, because those who are selected are ‘representative’ of the society as a whole, but that’s some funny maths at best, not to mention quite crude identity politics. I would certainly never, for example, claim to represent any substantial chunk of immigrants, although I am, seen from a statistics point of view, indisputably an immigrant.

In service to this ‘representative’ argument, citizens’ assembly buffs even managed to forget a referendum. Back during the Irish same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, we actually held two referenda. The second one, on lowering the legal age to be President (a largely ceremonial role) didn’t pass. It didn’t pass by a landslide, despite the predecessor of the citizens’ assembly (the Constitutional Convention) having passed it. Not so representative now.

The truth is advocates of citizens’ assemblies don’t worry about representativeness or legitimacy too much because the point is not to reflect what the wider society thinks, but what it would think if it weren’t so ignorant and misinformed. The idea is that if you think about an issue as hard as they have, you will inevitably come to the same conclusions they have. You know – the right ones.

I’ve had many conversations with pro-lifers. I had to – they’ve kept phoning me over two elections. And though I would call them many things – chief among them ‘persistent’ – they weren’t ignorant. They just had different values than I did on this point and ascribed to a different version of communal life.

I deeply disagree with that position, but I also disagree with all those traditionalists who voted against lowering the age to be President. But I accept that in a democracy I sometimes win and I sometimes lose. Although I think I am right, I may not always be. More than that, however, I’m unwilling to forego my rights to participate just to keep someone else from them, as I believe that in the long-run that is more dangerous than anything the people as a whole might actually decide to do.

It may be nice to get one’s way, but pushing ‘innovations’ like citizens’ assemblies, particularly at the expense of elections and referenda, is merely to weave the noose for your own neck. It means that you’re willing to disrespect your fellow citizens entirely to get something more important – the ‘right’ thing. That’s the exact calculation that every abusive regime the world has ever seen has made and it’s certainly holding the door wide for every other person and party out there who believes that their ideas of what is right are just so terribly important as to justify extraordinary measures.

No relationship can survive that kind of behaviour for long and a democracy is a relationship.

In a democracy, we are actually fundamentally saying to each other on a daily basis that you and your rights (and by extension, me and my rights) are more important to me than just getting my way is. That each person has entitlements no matter how woefully ignorant and awful I think they may be. That, importantly, each person has the potential to make a contribution to our society. This is a commitment that brings a lot of security with it.

That’s what we ultimately had here on the question of abortion in Ireland. You can’t outsource that. And you can’t just claim we did things differently because it’s convenient for you. There is no democracy without equal participation that includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. Not here. Not anywhere.


Dr. Fuller’s new book In Defence of Democracy is out on 6th September.

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a Canadian-Irish academic, columnist and expert on Athenian Democracy. She is the Director of the Solonian Democracy Institute and author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose, and most recently In Defence of Democracy.


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GIanni Pischedda
GIanni Pischedda
3 years ago

I found difficult to concentrate on your writing because of
the rather unintelligible accompanying graphs which somewhat spoil it. As a
data scientist and expert in data visualisation, I can show that there a better
way. If you can share the data I can show you. I am fun of Unherd and
would like to make my contribution to the cause.