It’s clear that there is 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 (Ireland CA), Dr Oliver Escobar (University of Edinburgh) and journalist Lesley Riddoch, on the plans for an assembly to tackle some of the major issues facing the country in the years ahead.
Assembly co-chair David Martin confirmed that the assembly – due to launch with 100-120 members in October – will not focus on the issue of independence for Scotland, noting the government has “already legislated for that.” Joanna Cherry MP QC reiterated this.
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”.
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.
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.” Dr Oliver Escobar added: “Representative democracy needs help. If we care about it, we need to take steps to strengthen its legitimacy and capacity to address challenges.”
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 said: “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’, and it has received extensive media coverage across Scotland.
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