Why are MPs so pathetically in thrall to Extinction Rebellion? This morning, while the world was focused on the Conservative leadership campaign six Commons select committees (Treasury, BEIS, Environmental Audit, Housing, Communities and Local Government, Science and Technology, and Transport) jointly launched a 'Citizens' Assembly' on climate change.
If you think you have heard that term before, it was one of the central demands of the climate change activists who occupied Oxford Circus for two weeks in April. One by one, they seem to be having their demands met as if they were a conquering army as opposed to a ragbag of anti-capitalist protesters. They demanded that Parliament declare a ‘climate emergency’ – which it duly did on 1 May. They demanded that the government set a legally-binding target to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions – which Theresa May did, albeit only by 2050, not 2025 as they originally demanded. And now we’re to have a Citizens' Assembly.
Is there any protest group which has been so indulged? Trouble is, of course, that these gestures will do nothing to please Extinction Rebellion, which, having sensed its power will be back for more. It has already denounced the plan for a Citizens' Assembly as inadequate on the grounds that its findings will only be advisory and won’t automatically become law.
Extinction Rebellion has a point – the select committees’ plan is pathetic. The 'Citizens' Assembly', it turns out, will meet only over two weekends in the autumn. Yet it might well end up establishing the concept of a Citizen’s Assembly as part of British democracy. So what is it, and who are the citizens who will sit on it?
I asked the House of Commons press office these questions. The answer that came back was that they don’t really know at this stage how the citizens will be selected, only that they will be farming out the job to some external organisation. They say:
“'The Committees will be seeking a partner(s) to organise and help deliver the Citizens’ Assembly. In Citizens’ Assemblies, the people who take part are chosen so they reflect the wider population – in terms of demographics (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, social class) and sometimes relevant attitudes (e.g. preferences for a small or large state). The successful contractor will be required to set out how they will recruit people to the Citizens’ Assembly.'
That is all very well, but it isn’t hard to guess what will happen. However much the government’s contractor seeks to select a representative sample of the population, you can be sure that climate activists will be pushing themselves forward. Just as the BBC’s panel of questioners in Tuesday’s Conservative leadership debate turned out to be stuffed with Corbynites in disguise, we are going to end up with a Citizens’ Assembly made up of citizens of a particular political hue.
Of course, we do already have a 'Citizens’ Assembly', and one which does reflect the political views of the country, because it is elected by us all. It is called the House of Commons. I only wish it would assert itself a little more and its members explain that while the country should work towards cleaner energy, Extinction Rebellion’s demands would ruin the economy while simply exporting Britain’s carbon emissions to countries which have not burdened themselves with legally-binding targets.