Published on September 7, 2016

Why engage the public just after they’ve voted?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

1446860306_0b4c261438_zThe total cost of the EU referendum, according to the BBC, was £142m. And all commentators and politicians appear to agree that the question has been definitively answered, “Brexit means Brexit”.

On this basis some would find it hard to justify spending more time and money reaching out to the public to engage them in further debate about the issues covered in the run-up to the referendum.

The trouble with this perspective is that it assumes that there is a ‘right’ answer out there to the question, which model of Brexit should the government pursue? However, it is very clear that each model the government could adopt, from remaining part of the EEA like Norway through to working within the WTO rules, will affect different individuals and communities in different ways.

To what extent do individuals and communities, industries and workers view the model that is ultimately chosen as contributing to their vision for their lives and the future of the UK? How should the decision about which model to adopt be made given the multiple effects, positive and negative, that the choice will have? How do we balance the key tensions and trade-offs that face the country as a new relationship with the EU is negotiated? How much time and effort should we invest to mitigate the effects for those who may lose more than they gain as the government redesigns our relationship with the EU and the wider world?

The decisions we make about our relationship with the EU will have profound effects on the future direction of the country and therefore the lives of everyone living here. The referendum campaign did not even begin to touch on the kinds of questions I raise above.

It is because these questions are so important and will have such a significant effect on the futures of everyone living in the UK that we need to find new ways to engage with these questions as individuals, communities and as a country.

It will be important that the government does this because the 22 people who make up the Cabinet cannot possibly hope to be in tune with the aspirations and fears of the 65 million people who live in the UK. But it is equally important that individuals and communities reach out to better understand the hopes and fears of their fellow citizens. Without this we cannot hope to develop a sense of our shared vision for the future.

This is not something that can be done through formal consultation processes, mass media campaigns, petitions and town hall debates alone. We need to connect intellectually and emotionally to the challenges our relationship with the world poses, and with each other.

We need to develop new ways to do this through art, the theatre, in schools, the workplace and in less formal settings. We are going to need to find new ways of talking to each other and the government that take us well beyond the binary yes or no of the referendum. Now is not the time for the government close down and take the difficult and life changing decisions in secret; now is very definitely the time to invest in opening up the debate and the decisions to the public.

Image credit: Librarianishish, Flickr (creative commons)

3 Responses to “Why engage the public just after they’ve voted?”

  1. Chris Wood
    September 19, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    This is basically a good vision. Leaving the EU is a necessary step towards democracy and sustainability, but it is not a sufficient step. Furthermore, the acrimony (not to say vitriol) coming from quite a few ‘remain’ voters shows that the UK is more divided on how the country should be run than we realised before the vote. This is the time to debate where we want to go as a country and how we want to operate. That, however, goes way beyond the narrow EEA vs. WTO choice you suggest; many of us voted ‘leave’ to get away from the unrestricted trade on which the EU is founded, not just to have it some other way!

    • Simon Burall
      Simon Burall
      September 19, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks Chris, you make a good point about my framing of the issue – we’re all caught in frames we can’t even see! Good deliberative dialogue can help us to challenge this, though it can sometimes be quite uncomfortable.

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