At a moment when our political conversation is so tribal and divisive, Hannah Eves asks if it is time for a more deliberative approach to British democracy. 23/09/2019
Recently the news broke that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has been approached by senior MPs to chair a citizens’ forum on Brexit. This is not the first time that such a forum has been suggested as a salve for the feeling of disenfranchisement; it’s an addition to a wider debate about the state of democracy. If it’s true that democracy is going through a ‘mid–life crisis’, then maybe it’s time for creative thinking about the next phase of its evolution.
The idea of democracy is tied irrevocably to the action of speech: debates, protests, campaigning. It all comes back to conversation. In the beginning, there was deliberation, or at least the idea of it. It’s time to breathe new life into that principle. The citizens’ forum, modelled on one used in Ireland during the 2016 referendum, would be made up of a representative group of 100 people. Its function would be to present proposals to parliament after a process of discussion with the aim of finding alternatives to leaving the EU without a deal.
On the role of the Christian church in this, the archbishop has been told to stay out of it, with Iain Duncan Smith arguing that he ‘shouldn’t allow himself to be tempted into what is essentially a very political issue right now’. However, despite fears about the imposition of the church into the democratic process, involvement and participation from all parts of society is legitimate, even ideal – and there is a more complementary relationship between the Christian church and democracy than first meets the eye. In fact, it could be the social institution which is uniquely positioned to facilitate the proposed forum, with centuries of experience in seeking consensus on divisive issues.
The early Christian church founded in first–century Palestine, among other things, was a form of political assembly. The Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15:6–29 illustrates this function as a decision making forum with open discussion at its core. Furthermore, diversity and equality were built into the foundations of the early church, most notably with the idea of radical equalitarianism before Christ: ‘there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female’. The example of the early Christian debates challenges the divided character of the Brexit debate – the radical model of inclusive assembly found in the text shows that the religion which Mr. Duncan Smith views as inherently apolitical has deep roots in principles of equality, inclusion, and collective decision making.
Furthermore, in practice, churches are a key part of civic society. Faith groups across the country are stepping in to provide welfare to those in need, not only through tackling immediate needs in foodbanks and night shelters, but also addressing deeper structural issues such as housing through deliberative processes. Our common life must not be dominated by churches, but it cannot be denied that it is shaped by the contributions of faith traditions.
On the subject of the forum, Welby had this to say: ‘it is obviously right that among many others the churches should contribute to the emergence of a dynamic and united country post–Brexit, however it may be achieved. Every one of us must play the part they can in this task’.
Every one of us must play the part they can in this task. A citizens’ forum would allow an access point for citizens to have a say in how we reconcile society post–Brexit. Building a pluralist society, centred on consensus and collective decision making requires a consideration of how individuals participate in our common life, including institutions such as the Christian church. There is no inevitability about democratic development: we must be willing to interrogate and defend the sacred values, principles so important to our common life that we take to the streets to defend them, which underpin democracy.
Finally, it all comes back to the quality of public conversation. Even by the archbishop facilitating a space for citizens to engage directly with the democratic process, the forum model could breathe new life into British democracy. After all, ‘democratic politics assumes there is no settled answer to any question’ – even foundational questions about how we do politics and public debate.
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