The Brexit vote told us that a majority of voters wanted to leave the EU, but it said little about their preferences for the form that Brexit should take. Public opinion surveys offer some insights, but often encourage respondents to provide simple answers to complex questions.
To gain insights into what kind of Brexit voters want, we held a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit in Autumn 2017. It brought together fifty randomly selected members of the public for two carefully structured weekends of listening, learning, reflecting and discussing. Assembly members considered what post‐Brexit arrangements the UK should pursue, focusing on trade and migration. The events gave them a chance to learn about the options, arguments and potential trade-offs and discuss them with a wide range of their peers.
The Citizens’ Assembly was modelled on previous citizens’ assemblies in Canada, the Netherlands, and Ireland, which led to referendums on electoral reform in two Canadian provinces and on same‐sex marriage and abortion in Ireland. Citizens’ assemblies embody a deliberative conception of democracy, where all perspectives are heard and considered carefully in light of evidence.
The intention was to feed into current government policy‐making. A narrow focus was essential to allow considered discussion within the time available.
Considered public opinion was hostile to a no deal Brexit
A crucial aspect of the future relationship between the UK and the EU will involve how we trade with each other. At the moment, that is largely determined by the rules of the Single Market.
Given a range of options on a Brexit trade deal, most Citizens’ Assembly members wanted the UK to pursue a bespoke arrangement with the EU rather than take either the off‐the‐peg option of continuing Single Market membership (should the EU allow it) or the option of no deal. This is striking. If in late 2018 or 2019, public opinion is similarly hostile to leaving the EU with no deal, it will be hard for any government to push such a Brexit through.
We asked Assembly members to rank different options primarily because it may be that the UK cannot get everything it wants. While the UK government’s Chequers plan proposes a bespoke trading relationship between the UK and the Single Market, whether any agreement on this basis will be acceptable either to remaining EU member states or to the UK parliament is far from clear. The voting in the Assembly also allows us to see members’ preferences if such a deal turns out to be unavailable. The graph below shows preferences if no bespoke trade deal at all can be done. If the choice comes down to one between Single Market membership and no deal, most members preferred the UK to stay in the Single Market.
Most people wanted to maintain free movement of labour, but reduce immigration
Migration between the UK and the EU is currently governed by the EU principle of free movement, which applies to people in employment or self‐employment, as well as to students and anyone who can sustain themselves financially. The Assembly considered five options for post‐Brexit policy.
Members were clearly concerned that policy‐makers should not focus just on the rules about who can or cannot stay in the UK. They also wanted the government to attend to domestic policies that might affect migration patterns – such as training for UK nationals – and to outcomes that are affected by migration such as the quality of public services. And some at least were open to delaying recent immigrants’ access to benefits, even if that might exclude some UK nationals too.
Thus, the members’ support for continuing free movement does not mean that most opposed a reduction in overall immigration numbers: most did want total immigration to fall. But they wanted this to be done in a targeted and fair way that would minimise harm to the UK economy.
The evidence from the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is that most voters want a pragmatic Brexit: if the UK is leaving the EU, they want it to strike the best deal possible. They want politicians to be concerned, above all, with protecting the economy, public services, and living standards across all parts of the UK. Their optimal outcome is a bespoke deal between the UK and the EU, such as the UK government is currently pursuing. But if that proves unattainable, they would prefer the UK to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union than to leave the EU with no deal. They want to contain immigration while maintaining a substantial level of free movement.
These are the conclusions of a diverse sample of the UK electorate who engaged intensively and deeply with the issues over two weekends. They deserve to be taken seriously by policy‐makers.
Finally, the use of a Citizens’ Assembly to address the complexities of Brexit illustrates the valuable role that such deliberative exercises could play in UK democracy. They could be particularly helpful for unlocking progress on issues that are often felt to be ‘too difficult’ for politicians to handle. One such issue is the future funding of social care, so it is very welcome that two parliamentary committees established a Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care earlier this year.