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Citizens’ Assemblies. A threat to our Democracy

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Written by Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine looks back at his first article for this site ‘What Price Democracy?’(March 2019) – and concludes that the UK democracy remains under threat. Labour’s renewed flirtation with citizens’ assemblies should act as a wake-up call – and is symptomatic of a continued lack of establishment faith in our hard-won democratic system.

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My first ever article for BfB, What Price Democracy?[1] was an attempt to sound the alarm at the concerted attempt on the part of our establishment to subvert, neuter or even reverse the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum.  I stand by every word of that piece.  The article came out in March 2019.  In May that year, the Brexit party won the EU elections, prompting Theresa May’s resignation as prime minister.  In December, after an extraordinary period of constitutional drama, Boris Johnson was finally allowed to go to the people – and scored a massive victory on a mandate to get Brexit done.

One might have thought that three separate ballot box wins would have put the Brexit issue beyond doubt.  Sadly not.  The amply funded Remoaner/Rejoiner juggernaut has ploughed relentlessly on.   As during the referendum campaign, they have sought to embed a narrative that Brexit has been economically damaging.  The brave group of volunteer economists on this site have repeatedly – and convincingly – rebutted these flawed and often wildly misleading arguments.  But it has been a lonely battle, with far too little support from the government – which remains hopelessly at odds with itself over the whole European question, despite the instructions given to it at the ballot box.

The Remainer effort to lay the blame for our economic woes on Brexit has been pretty successful, if recent polling is to be believed.  But, for all the cleverness of the propagandists, one wonders how sustainable this is.  The rather obvious truth is that Europe as a whole is in the doldrums economically.  If anything, since Brexit the UK has marginally outperformed our former principal EU partners.  Certainly, we have not done much worse.  We are all suffering the economic consequences of lockdowns, the drive for Net Zero and Ukraine, as well as various other forms of mismanagement and waste.  The faith in the ability of our own ruling class (of whatever political stripe) is as low as I have ever known it.  Meanwhile, the Americans have raced ahead on the back of cheap energy, less regulation, greater entrepreneurial dynamism, as well as a massive dollop of public spending (which may well prove to be irresponsibly and unnecessarily high).

Many of us voted for Brexit because we believe in the critical importance of holding politicians and government to account.  The EU was deliberately constructed to minimise the influence of the individual voter on the grand schemes dreamt up by a technocratic governing class.  For those of us who have tried to promote the cause of democracy globally over their working lives – in my case as a diplomat for some 30 years – we know all too well what happens when a ruling cadre becomes entrenched.  Power really does corrupt – and absolute power really does corrupt absolutely.

This is why, for me, the real nightmare of the period since 2016 has been the exposure of the lack of faith in democracy at the heart of our own establishment.  In my original 2019 piece, I wrote of my astonishment at the refusal of senior former civil service colleagues to accept the result of the Referendum.  Indeed, in their view, a referendum should never have been allowed to happen – despite it being the obvious way to handle a non-party constitutional issue (just as we have done in relation to the future of Northern Ireland and Scottish independence).  In the wake of the EU and general elections of 2019, the emphasis of the Remainer narrative shifted away from the dangers of referenda and we were treated to endless lectures on the dangers of populism – and reminded repeatedly that Hitler (not to mention Trump) had been elected to power.   The Brexit vote was a populist outcome, we were told, and consequently dangerous – and thus really shouldn’t be allowed to count.  It seemed that a vote would only be valid if judged fit and proper by the high-minded souls in control of the FT, BBC or similar.  If you think about it for more than a second or two, the scariness of that mindset begins to sink in.  If we don’t have faith in ordinary voters, we don’t have faith in democracy.

But it gets worse.  I have written on a number of occasions about the woke revolution in government.  The key things to focus on here are the issues of accountability, effectiveness and control.  An effective institutional culture is difficult to build, but easy to destroy.  Civil service impartiality is a central plank of our system of democratic accountability.  But, as I have argued on this site, identity politics and impartiality are not compatible.[2]  Wokery can lead to the promotion of people who are incapable of the delivery that taxpayers expect of them.  ‘Go woke, go broke’ sums it up very well.  Unfortunately, wokery offers manipulative and ambitious individuals the opportunity to secure and retain institutional power – and the money that goes with it.  One expects to see this kind of thing in totalitarian states, but now it is here.

For those slow on the uptake, Keir Starmer’s Chef de Cabinet Sue Gray has just issued a stark reminder.  Brexiteers will remember Remainer attempts to establish citizens’ assemblies to re-consider Brexit.  It was obvious then that this was a naked attempt to try to manipulate our democratic system to secure ‘the right result’.  The Spectator has nailed it in a recent article[3] when they point out: ‘So-called citizens’ assemblies are not an extension of democracy, then, but an attempt to subvert it.’

The real tragedy is that, as our ruling elite try to subvert our democracy, it is not just the UK voter that suffers, but also the cause of democracy and liberty globally.  I won my OBE for conflict resolution and the facilitation of Mozambique’s first ever democratic election.  Thirty years later, democracy is unravelling there very quickly.  If we don’t believe in democracy, why should anyone else?


Nick Busvine is a security consultant and former major of Sevenoaks. He is a member of the BriefingsforBritain advisory board


[1] What impact is Brexit having on the UK economy? – Briefings For Britain

[2] Identity politics and impartiality are not compatible – Briefings For Britain

[3] Citizens’ assemblies are a dreadful idea | The Spectator


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About the author

Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick also serves as a local town Councillor in Sevenoaks and as a gliding instructor.