Extinction Rebellion and democratic renewal—Blog by Graham Smith

XR and democratic renewal—blog by Graham Smith

2018 witnessed the emergence of a dynamic, new climate change movement—Extinction Rebellion (XR). Building chapters around the UK, Europe and across the world, XR’s most visible action was its day of mass civil disobedience in November, with 6,000 activists shutting down major road bridges in London.

XR is an interesting movement for all sorts of reasons. Commentators tend to focus on its demands on government to treat climate change as a national emergency, and on the willingness of activists—many of whom are motivated to protest for the first time in their lives—to be arrested for their convictions.

This use of mass civil disobedience has a long democratic heritage and makes a significant contribution to democratic culture. But XR has other ambitions to renew democracy. Like all environmental campaigns, XR is demanding a particular outcome: in this case to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. But unlike most others, one of its key demands is also democratic reform: “a national citizens’ assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.”

XR is very clear that the extreme distrust and lack of confidence in government and its apparent unwillingness and inability to act demands new approaches to decision making. “By necessity [our] demands require initiatives and mobilisation of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war. We do not however, trust our government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand a citizens’ assembly to oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for purpose.”

A citizens’ assembly involves randomly-selected citizens coming together over a number of days to learn, deliberate and make recommendations. It is a very different way of doing politics; one that has great faith in the capacity of ordinary citizens, when brought together in an inclusive and respectful setting, to be creative and collaborative in responding to challenging political issues.

The use of citizens’ assemblies is growing internationally. Perhaps the most celebrated are the Irish examples in which randomly-selected bodies made recommendations on the constitutional status of same-sex marriage and abortion. In both cases, these recommendations were supported in national referendums. There is growing interest in the UK: from recent citizens’ assemblies on Brexit in 2017 and social care last year, through to growing pressure to use a citizens’ assembly to break the current parliamentary deadlock over Brexit

What XR has recognised is that it is not enough to simply make a demand for change in government policy. To be effective in the long term, substantive change is needed in the way we do democracy: an analysis that we share at FDSD. For XR and a growing number of democratic activists and practitioners, citizens’ assemblies offer an attractive solution to what demands for democratic renewal look like in practice.

Graham Smith is Professor of Politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster; and Chair of the FDSD. You can follow him on Twitter.

Image: CC-BY 2.0 :: Julia Hawkins / Flickr

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