Campaigners have hailed a growing appetite for a ‘new kind of democracy’, after hundreds gathered on Monday evening to debate plans for a Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland.
At a sold-out panel Q&A hosted by the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, citizens quizzed Joanna Cherry MP QC, convenor designate David Martin (former MEP), Louise Caldwell – a member of Ireland’s citizens’ assembly, Prof David Farrell (research director of Ireland’s assembly), Dr Oliver Escobar (University of Edinburgh) and journalist Lesley Riddoch. The assembly aims to tackle some of the major issues facing the country in the years ahead.
Dr Oliver Escobar, an expert in participatory democracy who is advising on the Scottish assembly, said: “We have evidence from around the world that when the right conditions are in place, citizens have the capacity to learn and deliberate on complex issues, and come to informed conclusions.
“What’s at stake is whether we are going to find a new institution to help us improve parliamentary democracy, deal with our crises, and project us into a new form of democracy.”
In a major development, assembly co-chair David Martin confirmed that the assembly – due to launch with 100-120 members in October – will be not focus on the issue of independence for Scotland, noting the government has “already legislated for that.” (a point reiterated by Joanna Cherry MP QC).
Mr Martin said he had received unequivocal assurances from the Scottish Government that the assembly will be “completely independent” of government and parties. Instead the assembly members will decide the remit in discussion with the co-chairs, but it could include issues such as climate change or immigration in Scotland.
The former Labour MEP added that he “hope[d] the parties reflect on the fact that this [process] is the way forward”. “We are trying to lower the temperature of debate.” Participants called for all parties and sides to support the assembly “on its own merits.”
Willie Sullivan, Director of ERS Scotland, said:
“Clearly there is a huge appetite for a new way of doing democracy. Amid huge challenges and polarisation, people are looking beyond the old binaries. It is a significant and welcome development that key figures confirmed the independence of the assembly at our event, and we hope all sides across Scotland engage as this process develops.”
ERS Scotland Campaigns Organiser Alice Kinghorn-Gray added:
“Our event showed the passion for a fresh model for tackling divisive issues, learning from the example of Ireland. We look forward to taking part in these conversations as we try to build a deeper, more ‘deliberative’ democracy.”
Speakers and audience members backed the ERS’ call for a more ‘deliberative’ model of democracy. Lesley Riddoch said: “We lose so much experience and knowledge in this country because only the loudest people pipe up. A citizens’ assembly could be the making of a country talked down to.”
Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly research director Prof David Farrell said citizens’ assemblies were about moving to a “voice centred democracy” rather than a vote-centred one: “We as citizens should have more to do than just vote every five years to kick the rascals out,” he added.
Louise Caldwell from Ireland’s assembly said wider public participation was vital if the process was to succeed. In Ireland the public could submit their views directly into the assembly process. Co-chair David Martin said transparency would be key to the process in Scotland: “The aim will be to have all the documentation given to the assembly available for all online – we aim for maximum transparency”.
“A citizens’ assembly is a chance to step outside the black and white and figure out what we can do to move forward and find common ground, with results that are robust and trusted to last for years to come” said Irish assembly member Louise Caldwell.
Participatory democracy expert Dr Oliver Escobar noted that “many figures across political parties have endorsed the use of citizens’ assemblies – from Rory Stewart in the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats [backing one on climate change]”.
In an article for the Scotsman last week , Willie Sullivan, Director of ERS Scotland, said government and parties should commit to taking forward the results of the assembly:
“It’s up to the whole establishment – politicians, media and civil society – to understand that this a whole different approach, beyond party politics. How they react will have a big effect on whether the assembly can do the job it’s required to do: being a trusted proxy for the citizens on the big democratic questions Scotland faces.
“All the binary ways of thinking and focus on personalities will have to be put aside. If parties really want to be on board with giving citizens a say on taking democracy to the next level, they have to be open to learning. Parties need to pledge to accept the results of the assembly even if it doesn’t fit their agenda: the government must commit to listening and taking this forward.”
#ShapingScotland – the name of the event – was trending on Twitter in Edinburgh, with attendees saying the event and assembly process was ‘inspiring’.
The Electoral Reform Society have published an updated briefing on citizens’ assemblies. Including the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland . Recently several select committees in Westminster announced joint plans for a citizens’ assembly on climate change.
The Society have run dozens of ‘deliberative’ community events across Scotland in recent years through their ‘Act As If You Own the Place’ campaign, and the cross-society Our Democracy campaign for more community-based and engaging local government.
Notes to Editors
See tweets from last night’s event: https://twitter.com/ERSScotland/
A recording of the event is available here: https://livestream.com/DemocracyTV/ers-citizens-assembly