Gordon Brown: Citizens’ assemblies could find common ground in Scotland

Cross party support for citizens’ assemblies is a welcome step forward for a Scottish politics that has all too often seemed tribal.

Gordon Brown wants more Scots to be able to participate. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA

A consensus in favour of this experiment in participatory democracy gives this innovation of public hearings the best possible chance of succeeding.

Taking the debate about our future outside a parliamentary bubble and into the wider community has proved successful in North America, Australasia and Europe and most recently in Ireland.

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Citizens’ assemblies – representative samples of people coming together and taking time to examine the evidence, challenging the experts and hearing what various interest groups have to say -have been deployed to deal with controversial issues from abortion and law and order to nuclear power and reduced fossil fuel use.

As among the first to argue for citizens’ assemblies in our own country I know that Scottish people will draw special benefit for the assemblies will fill a gap in our political system caused by the now diminished role of political parties and the limitations of the more recent attempts at a participatory democracy through social media and the internet.

For a century political parties have been at the heart of representative democracy, assembling and then aggregating public opinion to build an informed policy position reflecting public concerns – but no-one now thinks parties spend their time consulting on detailed policy, or that they connect the electorate to the decision-making systems in the way they once did.

Parties have been overtaken by what at first glance appears to be a new kind of direct democracy – leaders and followers communicating personally and often instantaneously with each other through Facebook, Twitter and social media – the theory being that they do so on equal terms.

But this recent experiment in a participative democracy has, in practice, done little to build consensus or even to deliver a more informed debate.

In many ways it has achieved the opposite of what was intended: at best the internet promotes a shouting match without an umpire and at worst an echo chamber isolating and reverberating the most extremist of views – leaving us more divided than ever.

Citizens’ assemblies can now offer a fresh opportunity to invite more people into the decision-making process – and in a more structured and constructive way. The public hearings could help us build a more informed democracy as we bring together a microcosm of the electorate, several hundred citizens who would spend time together over a few Saturdays hearing the facts, interrogating the experts and challenging the propaganda that factions and parties put before them – and hopefully finding some common ground on the issues they are asked to consider.

In Ireland an in-depth discussion on abortion by a group of 100 citizens that was broadcast to the country led to far greater knowledge of the medical and moral issues at stake: a better understanding of -and tolerance for – the widely differing views of opposing sides; and a dialling down of the temperature of a previously heated debate which looked at one stage as if it would be a fight to the finish between radical feminism and sincerely held but absolutist religious doctrines.

Pre-referendum 2014 Scotland and 2016 Britain would have benefited from a similar time to reflect before the big votes. Whether there is or is not a future independence referendum, Scottish citizens’ assemblies now offer us the chance to have a more informed fact-based debate about the key issues affecting our economic and social future.

But while the Scottish government deserves credit for taking up the assembly idea, their current proposals – one citizens’ assembly of 100 meeting six times – lack ambition.

The better approach would be assemblies in every major region of the country – perhaps half a dozen – with 100 citizens in each. An online community of several hundred could be added to engage a wider number of citizens at little extra cost and with not 100 but 1,000 participating, the exercise would be far more inclusive – drawing in participants from the widest possible geographical areas including reaching out to those who would be less likely to attend face to face.

Of course the assemblies must not only be representative of the population but be run in a strict manner with broad-based support and through a wholly independent and authoritative organisation convened by respected public figures. But the assemblies will not be seen as legitimate if their terms of reference are so narrow that all they do – as one independence-supporting MSP suggested – is “to debate the Yes/No question in a future referendum”. Indeed they would miss out on so much that matters in people’s lives if they restricted the discussion to the constitution.

For assemblies cannot work if they are seen either as a rubber stamp or a platform paid for by public money for endlessly discussing the SNP’s favourite topic.

Surely what we really need to hear from Scottish people today are their economic priorities and social concerns – what weight they place, for example, on delivering decent jobs, better opportunities for their children, good services and a safer, cleaner environment. Only when we have established what the greatest concerns are can we look at policy changes that best meet the needs and aspirations of the Scottish people and see how important are any constitutional options for change to realise them.

Experience elsewhere does show that assemblies of citizens are more likely to challenge the comfort zones in which politicians often live and may even – as in Ireland – move us away from the traditional battlegrounds and on to common ground. And by working through the issues and exploring whether any consensus can be found that can reunite a divided country we might end the polarisation that threatens to entrench another 50 years of bitter constitutional division.

Of course, as a form of participatory, deliberative democracy in action, citizens’ assemblies are complementary, not alternative, to representative democracy. Any final decisions on the way forward have to be made by elected members of parliament.

But if the hearings can help bridge the gaps between the people and the powerful and deal with issues that current electoral politics struggles to manage other than on a binary basis, they will strengthen our democracy.

Gordon Brown was prime minister from 2007 to 2010