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Thursday, April 18, 2024
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HomeDemocracy in DecayCitizens’ assemblies, a choreographed charade

Citizens’ assemblies, a choreographed charade

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AN article in the online publication Civil Service World last February announced that former civil servant Sue Gray is working with Labour on plans to introduce citizens’ assemblies should the party, as is likely, win the next election. These assemblies are very much in vogue, with recent examples having allegedly helped secure ‘yes’ votes for abortion and gay marriage in the Irish Republic. The less enthusiastic amongst us, however, might conclude that they are just another charade to be played out within the parameters of permitted debate, with a view to ensuring, in the words of Nick Cohen back in 1999, that ‘the public can only want what the public gets’.

Cohen was responding to the proliferation of neatly-angled opinion polls, focus groups, and ‘consultations’, all liberally funded by taxpayers’ money, which have infiltrated our political processes following a speech given by Peter Mandelson to a shocked audience in Bonn in March, 1998. 

 ‘It may be,’ Mandelson had suggested, ‘that the era of pure representative democracy is coming to an end.’

‘I absolutely do not believe that!’ protested veteran politician Wolfgang Schäuble. But as time passed, and the Blair government continued to solicit an illusion of public consent to revolutionary measures through the judicious use of carefully worded opinion polls and the support of favoured groups of ‘stakeholders’ and ‘experts’, it seemed that he was wrong. Nor did New Labour’s forays into the techniques of market research prove to be a one-party affair. David Cameron was happy to follow where the Blair government had led: and the full-blown citizens’ assemblies now stepping into the limelight are the natural successors to previous ‘more democratically inclusive’ innovations.

A page on the UK Parliament website is devoted to these assemblies. They consist, we are told, of random groups of ‘representative people’ who are gathered together in a three-stage process of ‘learning, discussion and decision-making’ on controversial issues, and who then advise the Government ‘about what they think should happen’. 

The page is illustrated with a photograph of one such gathering, Climate Assembly UK, which brought together 108 ‘representative people’ over six weekends early in 2020. The photo shows a conference room dominated at one end by a large screen, with groups of eight seated at round tables laden with glasses of water, a plentiful supply of pens and many brightly-coloured sheets of paper. Centre-stage, a couple of women are engaged in earnest discussion while the man sitting next to them, hands deployed limply in front of him, gazes ahead with an expression of quiet despair.

Perhaps he is brooding on the misleading choice of the words ‘Climate Assembly UK’ to encapsulate the proposed discussions. That was, after all, hardly a fair description of what the participants were actually required to consider, which was ‘how the UK could reach its net-zero target by 2050’. Could this disconnect between title and content perhaps explain the man’s forlorn appearance? Had he agreed to take part on the assumption that anthropogenic climate change itself would be up for debate, only to find that his job was merely to bolster the official narrative by giving a semblance of ‘democratic’ approval to policies designed to counter an arguably non-existent problem? 

Choice of subject matter is only one of the many ways in which citizens’ assemblies may be subverted and controlled.

How, for instance, are the questions put to participants chosen, and what are the implications of the wording in which they are framed?

Again, how do you ensure that those randomly selected are, in fact, ‘representative’?  Who decides which ‘representative’ groups merit inclusion and in what proportion?

Is it sensible, in any case, to act on the assumption that some select group characteristic is the most important indicator of a person’s ‘representative’ credentials?

And what about the inevitable constraints of time on ordinary people with jobs and families to accommodate?  How would this affect fair representation?

Even if, by some miracle, the participants constituted a perfectly representative cross-section of the population, what about the ‘evidence presented to assembly members during the learning phase’?  Who ensures that this evidence really is ‘balanced, accurate and comprehensive’? The BBC, perhaps? 

Citizens’ assemblies have been misleadingly compared to juries but in a jury trial, if competent barristers are employed, all the evidence for both prosecution and defence will be comprehensively presented in adversarial debate: something which has never, to date, taken place in a public forum with regard to covid, or climate change, or mass immigration, and which is unlikely to be permitted in respect of any other divisive issue put before these government-approved panels.

Besides, what about group dynamics, particularly at a time when we are being taught to keep our true opinions to ourselves or face social ostracism, and possibly the closure of our bank accounts? Even supposing that everyone is prepared to brave the contempt of a bien pensant neighbour, some people are easily led. Others, even those who would stick firmly to conclusions based on their own experience and judgment in the privacy of the ballot box, may lose confidence and yield to an uneasy ‘consensus’ if they perceive themselves to be in a minority, or if overawed by those claiming superior knowledge and expertise.

As long as public figures who dare to buck the required ‘consensus’ and highlight popular concerns are thrown out of our institutions or lose their party whip, while the BBC is allowed to continue extorting money from the public while insulting our intelligence with its declarations of ‘settled science’, the promotion of tiny groups of ‘representative’ people by governments well versed in the techniques of propaganda and manipulation will not persuade the bulk of the population that their views are finally being taken into account.

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Gillian Dymond
Gillian Dymond
Gillian Dymond is 78, a mother and grandmother living in the north-east of England.

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