Polarisation. Paralysis. Politicians at each other’s throats. The crisis engulfing Westminster for the past year has not given the best impression of British parliamentary democracy at work. Theresa May’s failure to get her Brexit deal through after three attempts resulted in her losing her job.
Surely Britain can do better? Even members of the public chosen at random might be more effective than the current crop of politicians. Well, in Scotland that theory is going to be put to the test – at least in part. The prospect of a similar process happening at Westminster also seems likely on the issue of climate change – although the details are vague.
In April 2019 the Scottish government announced its plan to launch a citizens’ assembly in the autumn. It will randomly select 120 members of the public who will reflect Scottish society in terms of age, gender and ethnic background.
Scotland has had its own constitutional debate since the 2014 referendum, when a majority voted against independence. Revealing a similar polarisation to Brexit with a divide of 55-45%, this has not altered significantly in the subsequent five years, with opinion polls showing a country split down the middle.
Despite this, the Scottish government has not exhibited the same level of dysfunction as its UK counterpart in London. Even though both are minority governments, Holyrood has managed to get legislation through by working with other parties – including those which oppose its position on independence. But what can the fairly radical idea of a randomly selected citizens’ assembly add to the constitutional situation in Scotland?
Mike Russell, Scotland’s minister for constitutional relations, said that one of the aims was to bring people together to learn from each other “including those with whom we might otherwise profoundly disagree”. It’s a big claim – so what is its purpose?
The initial three (very broad) questions the assembly has been asked are simple: What kind of a country do you want Scotland to be? How can Scottish people overcome challenges (including Brexit) and, what further work is needed?
The participants will meet over several weekends to consider these questions and hear evidence from experts, who they will be able to cross-examine. Ultimately the assembly will come up with proposals to present to the Scottish parliament.
Looking from the outside, one might ask if this is not the role of politicians and established democratic institutions. These proposed questions seem to go to the heart of the issues surrounding Brexit and independence. Yet Russell stated this is now an “established way for mature democracies” to deal with difficult questions.
The Irish example
Russell has drawn comparisons with the situation in Ireland. Last year the Irish people voted in huge numbers to repeal Article 8 of their constitution and legalise abortion – this followed proposals from their citizens’ assembly convened in 2016. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon saw this as one of the inspirations for introducing the idea in Scotland.
Yet there have been other citizens’ assemblies internationally where success is debatable. Two Canadian provinces (British Colombia and Ontario) convened assemblies in the 2000s to look at the specific issue of electoral reform. The model that the people put forward was defeated by referendum. In 2006 the Netherlands asked citizens around the country what they wanted their cities to be in the coming decade, but the proposals were rejected by the government.
The assembly in Ireland grew from a Constitutional Convention set up in 2012 to look at the written Irish constitution. This was made up of of both elected politicians and members of the public. At that stage Ireland was still reeling from the financial crisis of 2008, and there was a widely held belief that the constitution was out of step with modern times and needed updating. With this structure the assembly could address specific questions – such as legalising same-sex marriage (also approved by referendum in 2015).
People v the politicians
The problem is that Scotland and the UK do not have a written constitution. There is no specific framework for a Scottish citizens’ assembly to apply to the questions they are being asked – which are much broader and more vague than in Ireland.
Also, the relationship between the established Scottish parliament and the new citizens’ assembly seems, at the moment, ill-defined. A disconnect between the two could be seen at best as frustrating and at worst a situation of dual power between “the people” and the politicians.
Such a scenario occurred in Iceland after the disaster of the financial collapse in 2008 prompted a new constitution that was created by ordinary citizens. This radical document was seen as a model for participatory democracy everywhere. It was endorsed by a referendum yet rejected by politicians in 2012 and has still not been introduced.
The SNP government clearly does not want such a stalemate to occur in Scotland – but, in the absence of a legislative framework, it is unclear what the precise relationship will be between elected Scottish politicians and this selected assembly.
Although the Scottish government is keen to stress the involvement of all political parties, the Conservative and Lib Dems have already said they will not participate – the former calling it a “nationalist stunt” tied to the government’s desire for a second referendum. Another objection is that the assembly’s remit is not limited to specific issues, like in Ireland.
One of the conveners of the assembly is to be former Labour MEP David Martin, who has stressed its independence from the Scottish government and the transparency of its procedures. But Martin thinks it was a “mistake” to launch it at the same time as discussing a second independence referendum. Martin maintains “binary questions are destroying politics” and the assembly should not put forward one single position on independence or Brexit.
In less turbulent times, this kind of participatory democracy in any society would be a challenge. In the current polarised tumult of British politics it will be intriguing to see how the Scottish citizens’ assembly develops.