Julia Ridpath on our recent Citizens' Jury into Syrian airstrikes for BBC News
December 11, 2015
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s dramatic vote in The House of Commons, it was proving difficult to get a real sense of where the public stood on British airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. Opinion polls sWe knew that with an issue this complex, we needed a unique approach to finding out what the public thought. We wanted our jurors to have the time and access to the information they needed to really analyse the arguments and come to a verdict. We therefore asked our 16 participants to come to The People’s Museum in Manchester to spend the day in conversation. We used video briefings to inform our jury of the moral, military and security arguments for and against airstrikes and discussed at length the value of each.howed a country divided and gave little indication of how and why people were coming to their decision Not content with a simple verdict of for or against, BBC News asked us to delve deeper into the arguments with a citizens’ jury of 16 people who were all undecided on the issue. Overwhelmingly the jury was frustrated and confused about the choice in front of them. The word cloud below, made up of the groups initial responses to the debate, shows that when it came to this issue people had more questions than answers. We discussed how the attacks in Paris had affected them and many expressed concern that a similar attack could happen in the UK. Some people spoke about their unease when visiting public places which they believed might be a target, coupled with their desire to carry on as normal so as ‘not to let the terrorists win.’ Over the course of the conversation our participants began to come down on one side or the other. Those who argued for airstrikes spoke passionately about the need to support our allies. One participant said “if this happened in Manchester or London would we expect the countries to come to our aid so we can face this together? I surely would.” It was clear that those arguing for airstrikes were doing so with a heavy heart with all of them acutely aware of the suffering that could follow. But many felt that this was what was needed to put a stop to ISIL. Those who argued against airstrikes brought up memories of Iraq and Afghanistan and their unease at intervening in Syria without an exit strategy. There was a concern amongst these participants that bombing would be too indiscriminate putting the lives of many Syrian civilians at risk. There was also a scepticism amongst this group that airstrikes could do anything to prevent an attack in the UK. One participant said “Airstrikes in themselves won’t make a blind bit of difference. They run the risk of collateral damage so I don’t really agree.” One thing that most of our jury did agree on was that there should be no British boots on the ground in Syria. Participants on both sides argued that the ground force fighting ISIL should be made up of those already in Syria and armies from the middle east rather than from Britain. The case was made by some for a British role in equipping and training these forces and those arguing for airstrikes saw them as important to supporting a ground force like this. After spending the day examining the driving forces behind the decision to support or oppose these airstrikes, we asked our previously undecided jury to come to a verdict. The result was a tie with 8 participants favouring airstrikes and 8 participants opposing it. This verdict was a perfect reflection of a conversation in which there had been no easy answers.