Could the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland change how politics is done for good?

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 20th March 2020

A new way of doing democracy is being trialled in Scotland – and the ERS is at the heart of it.

Since October, over 100 members of the Scottish public have been meeting regularly to discuss the future of their country. It’s no ordinary gathering.

Set up with support from the Scottish government, but independent of ministers, the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is formed of 100+ members representative of the age, ethnicity, disability, education levels, geographic location and political persuasions of Scotland. Together they have been tasked with helping to set out a vision of how Scotland can overcome the challenges it faces in the 21st century.

While the Assembly has just been suspended due to the coronavirus crisis, it’s worth exploring what’s behind the process.

Firstly, it’s a tool for doing democracy differently. There’s a democratic deficit across the UK. It will take more than changing the electoral mechanics to deal with polarisation in politics and dramatic shifts in technology. In the age of social media, we need new forums for bringing people together in a respectful and cooperative way.

Crucially, debating the pros and cons of independence is not the main concern of the Assembly. As Alice Kinghorn-Gray from ERS Scotland says: “It is built on the outcomes people want to see, not with debates around independence as a starting point.”

Members are helping to set out a collective vision for the country’s future – including how to move to a  ‘sustainable Scotland’, the role of finance and tax in balancing environmental, economic and social impacts for the good of the country and its citizens, and what powers can be used to achieve that vision.

Along with colleagues from the London office, Alice and the team in Scotland have been ensuring the Assembly lives up to its ideals as part of the stewarding group. “The point isn’t necessarily to build a consensus – but to understand different perspectives and find common ground,” Alice says.

Assembly members meet on a Friday evening, and are introduced to the plans for the weekend. On Saturday, there is a ‘learning phase’, where organisations and individuals give evidence on the issue of the day – with presentations and panels, and questions from Assembly members.

The members then go back and ‘deliberate’ – a process of informed discussion – over part of Saturday, before coming to conclusions, usually involving a preferential vote on Sunday that draws on everything they’ve learnt.

Following December’s surprise General Election, the Assembly kicked off properly in January and has risen quickly in prominence since then – with constructive engagement from voters and civil society across Scotland. Despite some initial scepticism, the process is being welcomed as an experiment – with lots of learning to come from it.

This is the first government-backed assembly in the UK, and is now operating alongside the ‘Climate Assembly’, backed by the UK parliament, which seeks to set out how to get to a ‘net zero’ carbon future for Britain by 2050.

Scottish Assembly members are ‘very invested and really enjoying it’ – with no dropouts so far, a remarkable feat. “Members are keen and see a lot of value in the concept and the process,” ERS Scotland’s Alice Kinghorn-Gray says.

Alice has been at all the weekends and says there’s been ‘a lot of enthusiasm and buzz’: “There’s real commitment, and the members take it really seriously. There are a lot of relationships being built. The majority are coming at this completely fresh and outside of politics,” she said.

The ERS are backing processes like this for a key reason: democracy is broken, and assemblies like this are helping to expand democracy outside of the dusty halls of power and into communities. Democracy isn’t an end product – it needs to keep evolving, and we need to innovate to rebuild trust.

There’s a long history of the ERS backing these processes. In 2012, we set up a ‘People’s Inquiry’ into Scotland’s future, ‘Democracy Max’. Then in 2015, we set up local citizens’ assemblies in England on local devolution projects in Sheffield and Southampton.

That work led to the first UK-wide Citizens’ Assembly (on Brexit) in 2017, where the ERS and partners brought together people across the divide to find common ground.

With these principles of deepening democracy in mind, ERS Scotland have also called for a transformation in how local governance is done in Scotland, with permanent citizens’ assemblies guiding councils’ plans.

The ERS has also co-run dozens of ‘Act Act As If We Own the Place,’ events in communities across Scotland, helping people set out visions for their local area, using similar deliberative techniques to citizens’ assemblies.

All of this work is part of a push for participative forums in a broad sense, engaging with communities on constitutional as well as economic and social issues.

The ERS are helping to develop analysis of ‘who holds power’ in the UK, and crucially – where. Scotland suffers from the lowest levels of local representation (i.e. at a council level) in Europe. Political reform has too often been piecemeal in the UK. Assemblies can help set out a vision for change from the bottom up, not handed down from the ‘Great and the Good’ when they see fit.

So, what’s next? These types of assemblies are expanding as we try to get to grips with a collapse of trust in politics. Careful thought will need to be given to how (and if) they formally fit into decision-making. This is a global movement for new ways of ‘doing’ democracy.

While the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland has now been postponed given the coronavirus crisis, these types of collective, participatory processes look here to stay.

Read the ERS’ vision for the future of local democracy in Scotland

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