Whilst most eyes at Westminster are resolutely fixed on the knock-out rounds of the Conservative leadership contest and Labour’s ongoing swithering on its position on a second Brexit referendum an influential coalition of MPs announced plans for a Citizen’s Assembly. Six of the House of Commons most powerful Select Committees - Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Environmental Audit; Housing, Communities and Local Government; Science and Technology; Transport; and Treasury – came together to announce a huge consultation “on combatting climate change and achieving the pathway to net zero carbon emissions.” It was, they said, a response to “the Prime Minister’s commitment last week to an ambitious new target for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.”
Select Committees leaving Westminster and going out into the country to hear views is a perfectly normal and routine part of their work. Select Committees joining forces with one another to broaden the impact of their work is also not unusual. Six committees combining forces is, however, not common practice and labelling the consultation as a Citizen’s Assembly is certainly noteworthy. By using the phrase for what would otherwise be a perfectly normal and routine fact-finding trip is something more. So what does the emergence of this innovative exercise mean in reality? Is it anything more than the application of a new name to an existing, if larger, process or does it herald a new era of popular consultation?
The phrase has increasingly been bandied about at Westminster in recent months as Brexit has become bogged down in Parliamentary deadlock. Most notably Rory Stewart suggested a Citizen Assembly as part of the policy platform of his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Neither a General Election nor another referendum holds much allure for the leaderships of the two big Westminster parties. The increasingly desperate search for an answer short of a General Election has increased interest in extra-Parliamentary processes. In looking for a new answer to an intractable problem however are politicians in danger of further undermining the Parliamentary Sovereignty of which they are temporary custodians and which sits at the heart of our democratic and political settlement. Is the House of Commons, along with the House of Lords (whose composition can be debated and certainly needs further reform), not the nation’s Citizen’s Assembly?
The temptation to by-pass Parliament is obvious and seductive. Referendums, a very recent phenomenon in British politics, have rarely provided the definitive answer they are called to provide but have proved irresistible to weak Prime Ministers looking for a way to move past a party breaking problem. In his excellent Reith Lectures the former Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption warns eloquently of the danger of majoritarian tyranny. Parliament has been very effective at ensuring the voice of the minority as well as that of the majority is heeded in our national life. Referendums enable a majority to claim an absolute victory and to disregard the opinion of the minority. It is no wonder that Mrs Thatcher agreed with Clement Attlee in his dislike of referendums.