Scotland’s first Citizens’ Assembly met last week for the first time since March. Like many social events and workplaces, the deliberative body, made up of 100 citizens reflecting Scotland’s demographics, has moved online after being suspended for four months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, not only is it the first Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, but the first to take place during overlapping social, economic, health and constitutional crises. This is a tall order, but the members are not simply well equipped, they are in a unique position to contribute to setting out Scotland’s roadmap at a difficult and uncertain time.
To take stock of the ongoing impact of the pandemic on people across Scotland, the assembly has been extended until the end of 2020. This will give time to reflect on its original remit of the future of Scotland in the current context. The Assembly will now be able to relate its three themes: economy, public finance and social impact; environmental sustainability; and how decisions are taken, to the impact of the pandemic and consider recommendations to the Scottish government.
Having this pre-existing body of citizens is undoubtedly a valuable opportunity to hear people’s voices about the ongoing impact of the pandemic. Covid-19 has moved the assembly to the forefront of government thinking with the recent programme for government stating that “we strongly believe that the Citizens’ Assembly can continue to play an important role in providing space for informed independent and adult conversation about the issues that are most important to people of Scotland as we respond to Covid-19 pandemic.”
The Assembly not only brings in ordinary people outside of normal decision-making processes, yet directly affected by the pandemic and policies emanating from Holyrood, it helps Scottish politicians think long-term and allows movement on issues that could potentially result in political deadlock. A phenomenon made all the more critical during crises.
As politicians in Scotland look to the assembly to shape a vision, it is important parties commit to institutionalising these processes at the national and local level. The National and Climate Citizens’ Assemblies are a step in the right direction, but Scotland is hugely behind most systems of local democracy in the Western World. There is just one ‘local’ representative for every 4,270 people – compared to one in 200 in Austria, one in 400 in Germany, and one in 2,860 in England.
Whilst advising the Assembly, ERS Scotland will be working on how strengthening local democracy can also help face contemporary democratic challenges, from advances in technology to decline in trust in politicians, as well as responding to the pandemic and the pre-existing issues that have been brought into sharp focus by the crisis. In the coming months, we will reconvene and expand Our Democracy’s coalition to learn from community initiatives responding to Covid-19. As part of the campaign for stronger local democracy we will be working with the Scottish Government’s Local Governance Review team on upcoming legislation, as well as campaigning for party manifesto commitments to principles of truly devolved and deliberative decision-making processes, outlined in our Declaration on Local Democracy, in the run-up to Scotland’s 2021 Holyrood election.
The ERS are backing these processes for a key reason: liberal 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 static and the job facing our society is twofold; redistribution of power by progressively evolving our democratic structures from the bottom up, whilst resisting this moment being used for the reconsolidation of power by the few at the top, which often occurs in the wake of shocks such as Covid-19. Prefiguring a different and inclusive way of doing politics is a step towards that.