Nicola Sturgeon should press ahead with a Citizens’ Assembly as soon as possible, writes Lesley Riddoch
Anyone notice that Brexit news faded away a bit last week? There was one reason. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s intention to hold another independence referendum before 2021 attracted a predictable and immediate rebuff from the British government and the usual pelters from Unionist parties.
But her statement made one thing clear – Scotland’s future is finally making news again. And a focus on our future instead of England’s past makes a very welcome change after three long years of irrationality, parliamentary hopelessness and back-stabbing at Westminster.
With any luck, and some boldness from the SNP leadership, Scotland’s future can easily become the shape of the summer.
The cleverest word in the SNP leader’s midweek speech was easily swallowed by her fiercest political and media critics – options. The suggestion that Brexit presents Scots with options is seductively simple. But it contains the acknowledgement that the status quo is only one of many possible futures. It may have habit, vested interests and familiarity behind it. For some, it may also have nostalgia, family links and a political belief system.
But it is just an option. Others are available. And once you accept that, the future of the Union sits on a gey shoogly nail.
As opinion polls demonstrate, Nicola Sturgeon’s options outlook, chimes with voters. A Panelbase survey has found most Scots favour staying in the UK by 53 per cent to 47 per cent but the proportions precisely reverse if there’s a no-deal Brexit – and in such a scenario 59 per cent believe independence would be better for Scotland. Evidently voters are quite capable of weighing and comparing possible futures. They just need a deadline, more detail, evidence and more control in shaping those options.
That can happen.
Just one man in a packed conference hall opposed the creation of a citizens’ assembly, unexpectedly announced by Nicola Sturgeon, to decide what kind of independent country Scotland can become, to overcome challenges like Brexit and to determine what further work’s needed so voters can make informed choices. The concept of citizens assemblies – championed by Joanna Cherry MP - may be unfamiliar in Scotland but in Ireland it’s been nothing short of revolutionary, finding popular solutions to previously intractable issues like abortion and conferring upon them a sense of civic legitimacy that’s generally missing in the formal political arena. In Ireland randomly chosen voters (reflecting the country’s demographics) met together over five weekends to hear evidence from experts, politicians and citizens, considered and questioned what they’d heard and finally produced recommendations to the Irish Parliament. That formed a solid basis for the referendum eventually held and won in July 2018. Citizens could do what politicians dared not – they dropped the red lines, reconsidered in light of evidence, found common cause and brought a wealth of diverse life experience to the assembly process.
In Canada, individual members of their citizens assembly were paid to cover caring responsibilities and lost work and resourced to hold local meetings hoovering up issues & questions. As Edinburgh academic Oliver Escobar explained at a conference fringe meeting, this helped them become “trusted proxies” in the eyes of other voters. Since the public sessions were live-streamed and covered in regular broadcast updates, that wider electorate stayed involved.
Some critics of the citizens assembly fear it undermines “proper” representative democracy. But the countries most likely to use it are amongst the best-functioning democracies in the world. Others worry that giving complete decision-making power to a small group of voters might result in disaster if they don’t endorse the “right” result. That’s true. It is a political risk. But the capacity to bestow high levels of trust on fellow citizens is generally rewarded with a responsible approach and an openness to new information. And of course, the assembly’s job is simply to present a set of suggestions – the final decisions are taken, as always, by democratically elected parliaments.
If it can be done in Ireland, Australia, Canada and Belgium, it can be done here in Scotland. There’s never been a better time.
Political parties across Europe are failing to represent the new fault-lines in society. Instead, old priorities are being offered … and rejected, as the SNP leadership discovered this weekend after conference delegates voted to adopt a new Scottish currency “as soon as practicable after Independence Day” instead of waiting until the end of the first post-independence Parliament.
The party leadership maintains the controversial six tests will stay because the successful amendment didn’t delete them and others which did, failed to pass. But no-one in the hall could be in any doubt about the intent of proposer Timothy Rideout who was fairly scathing in his criticism. Not a single ordinary delegate spoke for the leadership’s position, not a single MP or MSP was called to speak for an amendment. This was absolutely a case of the grassroots challenging the leadership – but it did not come from nowhere. Essentially delegates were simply keeping faith with the party’s National Assembly process last summer during which three separate gatherings heard the evidence and then rejected long-term use of the pound or sterlingisation after independence – three times.
That was a warning the leadership failed to heed.
Which is where citizens assemblies come in. The SNP and indeed the wider Yes movement cannot afford further mismatches between pre-existing policy and popular opinion. As the First Minister herself put it, the independence campaign must go “beyond tribes.”
So the daring thing for Nicola Sturgeon would be to waste no time and get on with a citizens assembly, starting the mechanisms of selection, organisation and facilitation, holding the first assembly this summer and giving it a meaty issue to cut its teeth on – something like the currency in an independent Scotland or restoring genuinely local democracy in a country with the largest councils in the developed world.
There’s total paralysis everywhere else in Britain and despite the high drama of the European elections south of the border as Farage’s Brexit Party pulverises the Tories and the pantomime of Donald Trump’s state visit, that isn’t going to change. Time for Scotland to show the lead.
In her leader’s speech, Nicola Sturgeon quoted an Irish paper saying; “Scotland is a beacon of sense in a sea of madness.” Embracing Ireland’s pioneering use of direct democracy this summer would be a fine way of returning the compliment.