Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland faces pitfalls and opportunities – Willie Sullivan

Pro independence supporters. Picture: PA
Pro independence supporters. Picture: PA
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Next Monday, the firing gun will be started on a ‘Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland’. Hundreds will gather at Edinburgh University to discuss what this might look like, what it might involve, and how it can help pave a positive way forward for how democracy works in Scotland.

Over 200 people signed up in a matter of days to attend the debate, meaning it had to be moved to a larger venue. ERS Scotland – which has run ‘deliberative’ community events (‘Act As if You Own the Place’) involving thousands of people over the past few years – has welcomed the Government’s plans but says that getting the process right is essential.

It comes amid growing support for new models of democratic engagement, particularly in a time of polarisation. Six select committees in Westminster have just announced plans to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on combatting climate change and achieving the pathway to net-zero carbon emissions.

Ahead of Monday’s debate, it’s worth looking at some opportunities and pitfalls for citizens’ assemblies. Ireland’s 2016 citizens’ assembly is the most relevant assembly to look at here – it was nation-wide and government-backed (and led to real constitutional change, through the referendum on abortion and more). Yet Emmanuel Macron played with citizens’ assemblies in France, but couldn’t let go of the process, meaning it was too politicised.

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Scotland is at the forefront on this – and it’s good to see Government looking closely at the Irish example. But 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.

All the binary ways of thinking and focus on personalities – who’s up, who’s down – have to be put aside. Everyone will be on a learning curve, and they can’t bring the old ways of working to it. Citizens’ assemblies don’t fit into the narrow box or viewpoints of the past.

Our media will play a big role in this – as in Ireland, a concerted effort must be made to report this fairly and focus on the issues, not the Kremlinology of it all or simply the Great and the Good. And 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.

Politicians’ involvement needs to be in the background, but they must still feel part of it. So their involvement needs to be well designed.

In Ireland, there was animosity between citizens and politicians at the beginning but they worked through that – by the end, politicians were viewed as citizens with particular expertise. For this assembly to work, it needs status. There needs to be national awareness of this – it needs to be fully in the public eye and at the heart of public debate.

Our event needs to be built upon, with mechanisms for everyone to feel part of a national conversation.

Looking at Ireland, there was extensive communication of the assembly of all kinds, and fair media coverage of the issues, not the personalities. The meeting on 8 July could be first of many educational exercises on this.

Willie Sullivan is the Electoral Reform Society’s Scotland director. Sign up for the ERS debate on 8 July here