The Scottish people should be involved in the devolution debate

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 17th September 2015

Yesterday (Wednesday 16th September) the Scottish Parliament debated ‘Scotland’s Future: Democracy and Devolution’.

One year on from the independence referendum, and with the Scotland Bill due to go to report stage in the next few weeks, this debate offered parliamentarians the chance to reflect on the debate in the run up to September 18th 2014, and to consider progress on promised further powers since then.

Which is lovely for them, but rather neglects a significant element of what made the independence debate so successful, invigorating and participatory: the Scottish people.

Alison Johnstone, the Scottish Green Party MSP for Lothian said:

“In its briefing for today’s debate, the Electoral Reform Society Scotland asks:
“One year on, have we honoured the legacy of this ‘energised and enthused’ nation?”
The ERS, I suggest, thinks not, and I am inclined to agree with it. The ERS and witness after witness at the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee commented on the haste with which this part of the devolution process has progressed.”

Alison is right in her assumption. During the lead up to the referendum and afterwards we argued that the debate about further powers should be a citizen led conversation – harnessing the enthusiasm from the referendum and asking Scotland’s people where they thought power should lie.

Instead of this inclusive participatory approach, the Scottish public have been shut out of the devolution debate. The Smith Commission process was a rushed conversation, largely between politicians – with no real indication of how the 380 submissions from civic society organisations and 14,000 from individuals were considered. And the Scotland Bill has seen more confrontational politics and few opportunities for detailed debate or votes on any amendments. None of this respects the involvement of the people of Scotland in the devolution debate.

ERS Scotland asked pollsters YouGov to find out if people were still interested in talking about devolution. Their polling shows that despite deals being done behind closed doors and the technical detail of the discussion, 50% of the people we asked said they had talked to someone about the Scotland Bill and more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Whilst this shows a sharp decrease from the over 90% of people who indicated they had conversations about the independence referendum in the run up to the vote one year ago, it suggests that although they haven’t been invited to the table, Scots are keen to talk about devolution.

We owe our re-engaged citizens a voice in the discussion. The record levels of participation in the referendum debate were praised by all parties, and yet now, Scotland’s citizens are not being included in deciding anything about more powers. The referendum debate taught us how to do politics differently but we aren’t using that learning.

And these aren’t the only constitutional issues that need to be addressed. Our democratic institutions are creaking under the pressure of failed attempts at reform: from the bloated, ermine-coated House of Lords to May’s most disproportionate result in British election history, and the question of where power should lie – what powers should be devolved to which level – across the UK, ERS Scotland thinks it’s time we gave citizens the chance to debate these issues.

ERS Scotland recently published ‘We, the People’ presenting four case studies of citizen led constitutional decision making and the lessons we can learn from British Columbia, Ontario, Iceland and Ireland.  And ERS is itself launching our own Citizens Assemblies in Sheffield and Southampton because we think it’s vital that citizens have a real say in where they think power should lie.

There are numerous international examples of citizen led constitutional decision making. Scotland, and the UK, could be part of this exciting trend.

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