What happens at the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland?

Alice Kinghorn-Gray, ERS Scotland Campaigns Organiser

Posted on the 25th November 2019

On Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th October, The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland kicked off at the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh, with one hundred people from across the country meeting for the first time.

The Assembly has been selected by an independent third-party to create a ‘mini-public’ reflecting Scotland’s population based on age, long term life limiting condition, ethnicity, political belief, voting intention for the Scottish Parliament, attitudes to UK membership of the European Union, attitudes to Scottish independence, education and geography. The breakdown of Scotland’s demographic and recruitment methodology can be found on the official website.

Until they were recruited, many of the participants had never heard of a Citizens’ Assembly, yet Professor David Farrell, lead researcher of the Irish Citizens Assembly, remarked on the “incredible (and so familiar) buzz in the room during the first period of small table deliberation”.

Focusing on outcomes can overlook the importance of the process of a citizens’ assembly. During the introduction, co-conveners David Martin and Kate Wimpress spoke of the importance of the Assembly for Scotland’s democratic future and the value of each person’s experience in order for it to become a rich and potentially transformative journey for everyone involved.

The Assembly was introduced to the independent research team, which will be analysing how their views and attitudes develop over the next six months in response to high quality, balanced information and deliberation. The outcome of the research will be presented as a report alongside open access to the data, putting Scotland’s experience on the international stage and support the development of best practice.

Over the weekend the Assembly was given the remit that it is setting out to address:

  • What kind of country are we seeking to build?
  • How best can we overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit?
  • What further information will Scottish citizens need in order to make informed decisions.

This was followed by a presentation from Professor Nicola McEwan, an independent researcher of Scottish and UK constitutions at The University of Edinburgh, covering three themes:

  1. The way decisions are made and the processes that lead to this.
  2. The powers of the Scottish Parliament, its relationship to Westminster and how it has evolved.
  3. Different constitutional options for the future

The Assembly is designed around constant input from the participants. An example being that the assembly has asked for more information on how UK tax structure operates. While the Assembly retains sovereignty, the guidelines state that members will avoid discussing general merits of constitution outcomes, nor be a substitute for elections or referendums.

In the next meeting on the 30th Nov and 1st December the Assembly will be asked to draw upon their own experiences and hear from their fellow members what a ‘good life’ means. This will be supplemented by official research on happiness and well-being. This will be the starting point from where it will decide what social policy issues it wishes to explore and their relationship to the constitution.

Scotland’s Citizen’s Assembly represents the opportunity to advance Scotland’s participatory journey and move towards institutionalising these processes.

According to David Martin, the participative and deliberative process sets out “new standards for the quality of the information provided with and new standards on how the discussion on contentious issues are concluded”. In an effort to bridge the potential polarisation of constitutional issues such as Independence and Brexit, the Assembly’s conveners believe the recommendations will be critical to ensure the country can take informed decisions to move forward by agreement.

One certain output of the Assembly will be report given to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament in May 2020 and then debated in parliament. The Scottish Government has committed to taking forward the Assembly’s recommendations and acting on conclusions.

Meanwhile, an ongoing conversation continues around how communities and voices outside the room engage with the Assembly’s process and the issues raised about the future of Scotland. How it relates to wider society will enrichen the vision and support actualising it; by both compelling political commitments, and incentivising practical actions inside and outside traditional institutions.

Whatever happens over the next 6 months, hopefully, this is just the start of Scotland’s journey towards a more active democracy.

The next meeting of the Assembly will take place in Glasgow on Saturday 30th and Sunday 1st December. The Electoral Reform Society and The University of Aberdeen will be hosting a public discussion with co-convener David Martin and Dr Clodagh Harris from Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on 5TH December in Aberdeen.

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