A People’s Gathering on the Scottish Constitution

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 2nd June 2012

Maybe our democracy never really worked that well.

Maybe increased transparency and developments in technology mean that ordinary people are able to appreciate the realities of power and its misuse.

Maybe the modern age has seen an erosion of values such as public service and duty that have led to a loss of trust in politics.

Whatever the underlying causes, the truth is that trust in politics and democracy is ebbing away.

The independence referendum presents an exciting opportunity for Scotland to consider her democracy. Fifteen years after the devolution referendum, are the objectives of that poll being met, and are there other aspects of our democratic systems that could stand a spring clean.

To try and take a temperature check of what the Scottish public think about how politics is working for them, ERS Scotland is looking for people from across the country to join a unique day long gathering in Edinburgh in mid-July. The ‘People’s Gathering’ will bring together 129 ‘Members of the Scottish Public’ for a Saturday to share and debate their views on our democracy.

We are not making a judgement on the pros and cons of independence, or any other interim position. But we do think the current discussion should be as democratic and open and informed as possible and should engage as many Scots as possible. And we think discussing democracy, devolution and our constitution is part of a healthy functioning democracy, and to be welcomed, and engaged with, not feared or discouraged.

So what might this conversation about the constitution include? Issues range from the practicalities of matters of state like currency and defence, international issues like membership of NATO and the EU, to day-to-day policy issues like welfare and benefits, and to the rediculous, like what will happen to the Edinburgh Zoo pandas.

At the Society our contention is that regardless of your thoughts on these or any other particular issues, this is an opportunity to put systems in place that mean we can have more confidence in how all those issues are decided upon.

A functioning democracy requires a certain number of conditions, reviewing their functionality every so often can indicate weaknesses, failings, or fractures. Especially considering the warning signs – low turnout, cynicism about politics, accusations of corruption.

What sort of questions should we be asking to pick apart the web of power and influence that is obscuring our democracy? ERS Scotland is at the beginning of a process where we want to discuss exactly that. We’ve had some initial ideas, we’re planning a People’s Gathering, and we hope to encourage debate online.

What should we do about turnout in elections? We know people engage with charities and community groups who work for change at a local and national level, why don’t those people feel engaged with the system of government?

Is politics really representing the people? Does our parliament resemble our society? How much should it do so? Obviously our elected representatives need to have a certain skillset, but how much confidence in Government making decisions that respect the people can be had when there are more millionaires than women in the Westminster cabinet?

Do politicians need to be more accountable to the people? Is a law of recall too blunt an instrument? Certainly the American experience suggests it can be abused by interest groups, so do we need to think of a more holistic way of ensuring accountability?

Are big banks and newspaper editors too powerful in influencing policy? The Leveson Inquiry is revealing that corporations and their representatives have a different level of access to Government than most of us could get. In and of itself that may simply be a result of their size, but if they are able to direct policy decisions to their benefit rather than in the best interests of the country and the population, then that needs to be addressed.

And that’s just scratching the surface… the opportunity we have at the moment is to re-imagine what we want politics to look like, what we want it to achieve.

We can challenge those involved in the discussion about yes or no to independence to tell us what they would or wouldn’t change, what are they going to do with this opportunity to engage with the Scottish people and talk about how we are governed.

So the big question, the question all these questions lead to is this – ‘What do YOU think makes a good Scottish democracy?’ 

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