From Devolution to Brexit: Lessons from the Citizens’ Assembly Experiments in the UK

By Prof. Graham Smith, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.

Over two weekends in September 2017, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit brought together 50 randomly selected citizens who reflected the diversity of the UK electorate. The Assembly aimed to, first, provide much needed robust public input into the Brexit process and, second, show the value of deliberative public engagement on controversial areas of public policy.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was an opportunity for this diverse group of UK voters to learn about the issues of trade and migration from a variety of experts and politicians, deliberate with each other and come to recommendations on the form that Brexit should take. The Assembly reflected the socio-demographic characteristics of the broader population and their vote in the Brexit referendum in 2016, so included more Leave than Remain supporters.

The main recommendations of the Assembly are:

  • On trade, it preferred 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.
  • On migration, it voted to retain free movement of labour, but with the UK government exercising all available controls to prevent abuse of the system.
  • If a deal cannot be reached in negotiations on trade, the Assembly prefered to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union to no deal at all.

The Assembly was organised by an independent group of academics and civil society organisations and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its UK in a Changing Europe programme.

This is the second time that members of this consortium have been involved in running and promoting citizens’ assemblies in the UK. In 2015, the Democracy Matters project organised two-pilot assemblies on English devolution. One of the aims of the project was to investigate the effect of including politicians as members of the assembly, inspired by the practice of the Irish Constitutional Convention. As such the assembly in Sheffield was constituted by randomly selected citizens only; the assembly in Southampton had politicians working alongside the citizens as members. Analysis of survey results suggests that politicians were particularly influential in shaping the thinking of citizens in the mixed assembly, raising questions about the value of this approach to assembly design.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and Democracy Matters projects can be seen as part of the wider movement aimed at promoting more deliberative forms of public engagement in the UK: unlike Ireland and Canada, there is little high level political support for establishing Citizens’ Assemblies in the UK. Both projects have also generated important insights into the processes of organizing citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ perspectives on two significant areas of public policy.

Further details of both assemblies can be found at


Graham Smith is Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster. His main research interests are in democratic theory and practice (particularly participatory democratic institutions), climate politics and the third sector/social economy. Graham is currently involved in a number of research projects, including Scholio, Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and Participedia.

SPIRe Seminar Series

This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series.  Prof Smith’s seminar “From Devolution to Brexit: Lessons from the Citizens’ Assembly Experiments in the UK” (Discussant: Prof. David Farrell) will take place Wednesday, Nov. 8th, 14:00-15:15 in Room G316, Newman Building.

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.


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