Come together

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 8th September 2014

Scotland is alive with an unprecedented level of political debate. In homes, pubs and town halls, that debate is not limited to technicalities; it’s about the way people want to be governed, the society they want to live in.

Go south of the border and you could already be in an entirely separate country. The rest of the Union has only just woken up to the possibilities created by this once-in-a-lifetime decision. The prospect of a ‘Yes’ victory has jolted people outside Scotland into taking notice, but ultimately it is a contest in which non-Scots can speak but not act.

Whatever happens on 18th September, the rest of the country must be given a say in what happens to the United Kingdom.

After the referendum, the whole of the Union (or remainder of it) should be brought into the conversation. Citizens should have a say in the future of their country and a clear role in shaping it. That is why the Electoral Reform Society has been calling for a UK Constitutional Convention. We have long argued that a Convention could be the catalyst for bringing politics alive in the rest of the UK, just as the referendum has provided the catalyst for debate in Scotland.

Douglas Alexander has recently suggested setting up a Scottish national convention as a means of bringing together a divided nation in the shaping of the country’s future. But if any such process is going to mean anything, it has to include the rest of the country, not just Scotland.

And if it is going to be seen as legitimate, it has to be led by citizens.

Establishing a citizen-led Convention is a big task. The UK is a highly populated and diverse place. But putting citizens in charge of the decision-making works. We need only look to our neighbours for an example of a successful convention process. Ireland’s constitutional convention concluded its work in March this year and the government has so far committed to holding referendums on three of the main issues. Though not without its critics, the Convention has generally been hailed as a success and shows how, against a backdrop of political cynicism, the process engaged Irish citizens beyond the Convention’s membership.

Drawing on the best examples from around the world, a UK-specific Convention has huge potential. It would need to be mindful of regional representation, ensuring each nation as well as regions are fairly heard. This could be achieved by holding regional fora in advance of or alongside a national convention. The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly, which held regional meetings attended by Assembly members, shows one way of expanding the reach of the project across a larger area.

It would need to select citizen members fairly but also create opportunities to contribute for those who haven’t been selected. Iceland’s Constitutional Council provides a good example of how to open up the process beyond those directly involved, using online techniques.

It would also need political buy-in to ensure its recommendations have impact. Ireland’s Convention, in which a minority of the members were politicians, demonstrates how this can be achieved whilst ensuring that ordinary citizens’ voices are not sidelined.

And it needs clarity of purpose (though not necessarily remit), as well as a clear process for ratification of its recommendations.

But most of all it needs to start with the principle that people are the sovereigns of the country; that they should have the power to decide its future.

Whatever the result of the independence referendum, the constitutional future of the UK will need to be addressed. We have a choice: do we want the future of our country to be decided by politicians behind closed doors? By senior mandarins? By a commission of notables?

Or do we want citizens to have a say?

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