On Sunday at SNP spring conference, delegates showed their interest in a deliberative and local democracy by packing out 2 events hosted by ERS Scotland.
The first, a discussion around the merits of citizens’ assemblies, followed the announcement in the week that the Scottish Government intends to hold a citizens’ assembly ahead of a fresh independence vote.
The audience heard from experts and campaigners, with Willie Sullivan, ERS Scotland director, outlining how innovations such as citizens’ assemblies are a vital way to upgrade and return legitimacy to our broken politics. He praised the fact that there is the political will to hold them, saying that the public must now be exposed to how they work. “The more people who go through and understand participative democratic processes, the more active citizens become”.
Also on the panel was Joanna Cherry QC MP, who spoke of her reasons behind tabling a motion at conference for a citizens’ assembly, to look at policy and constitutional issues as part of a national debate. She felt that people should be allowed to inform big decisions on Scotland’s future and given the tools and space in which to do so.
If anyone went into the conference not knowing what a citizens’ assembly was then they couldn’t have avoided finding out, with citizen-led decision making being brought up again and again in fringes as well as on the conference floor. The common theme was of people saying that representative forms of government are not enough for democracy to flourish, people must be trusted to make decisions for themselves.
The second fringe event, in partnership with Our Democracy and Common Weal, looked at how to get real power to communities. As has often been pointed out but never fails to amaze those hearing it for the first time; Scotland’s local democracy is hugely out of step with the rest of Europe when it comes to how many councillors there are per elector and the geographical size of councils. Research has shown that Scotland’s ‘local’ democracy is anything but.
Aileen Campbell, cabinet secretary for communities and local government, is part of the Scottish Government’s own Democracy Matters consultation on local governance reform. She was on the panel to hear from a range of contributors that modern democracies build their success on people making decisions about the places they live.
Multiple community councillors and activists outlined how current structures can often disempower communities. Many felt that this review can potentially lead to an overhaul of an overcentralised local democracy – but it must be radical.
Bringing these sessions together was a realisation that it is not good enough to try to democratise Scotland project by project: we need a culture shift. There are hopeful signs it is starting to happen.