OVER the past few months Scotland has not only made an historic decision about its future; it has in the process become one of the most politically engaged countries in the world.
Turnout was an all-time high, debate took place in every high street and workplace, and huge numbers of people have decided now is the time to join a political party. Whether people saw the result they hoped for, or were, like me, disappointed by the outcome, it’s great to see that so many people retain an appetite for the democratic process.
Keeping this level of engagement may be difficult now that the big decision, Yes or No to independence, has been made. But if we ensure that people can still see ways to get involved with the political life of their country and make a difference, we’ll have a chance of doing so.
Which is why the Smith Commission on devolution is a bit of a worry. I don’t blame Bob Smith himself for the shortcomings of the process that he’s been asked to undertake. Regardless of how you feel about unelected peers (and doing away with the House of Lords struck me as one of many good reasons to vote Yes) I have no doubt that he will do the best job he can with the situation he’s been landed in. But there’s a danger the discussion over devolution ends up as little more than a stitch-up between political parties, with almost no scope for meaningful public engagement.
Maggie Chapman and I, as co-convenors of the Scottish Greens, have been invited to submit our proposals to the commission by Friday next week, along with the other parties at Holyrood. Others, including smaller parties, campaigners and civil society organisations will have just a few weeks after that to give their views. Members of the public can also give written evidence, but with a final report due in less than two months and a process of political haggling to get through to find out what common ground can be reached, it’s clear that this debate will have far less creative energy than the referendum we’ve just come through.
Asking members of the public to fire in an e-mail between now and the end of the month is all very well, but if we’re remotely serious about allowing the public into this debate instead of deciding everything inside the political bubble, we will need to set some clear expectations about what comes after the commission reports. Its recommendations should be seen as the starting point of the public debate, not a done deal.
Around the world there are some fantastic examples of meaningful public participation in the big decisions about constitutions, laws, voting systems and the nature of government. From citizens’ assemblies to “super-juries”, we could use random selection to ensure that the public view, not just those of parties and politicians, is heard. Several online tools have been used as a way of properly getting discussions going. We should draw from such creative ideas around the world and design a genuinely open process. Given the high turnout at the referendum, expectations are high that as citizens we should all have a part in shaping what happens next.
There will no doubt be disagreements about the nature, and even the purpose, of the powers which should be devolved to Holyrood.
But while many are keen to “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire”, we need to remember that we do have time, sadly after Smith has reported instead of before, for meaningful public participation in this debate. We would be quite wrong to miss that opportunity and just demand that a deal between political parties is implemented at breakneck speed.
The Greens’ theme during the referendum campaign was about seizing the opportunity of independence. Seizing the opportunity of the devolution process has less of a catchy ring to it but it’s still a chance for Scots to shape their future. If we want to retain the political re-engagement which allowed so many people to go beyond a Yes/No choice and begin imagining the future they want for their country, we need to ensure that public involvement in politics really makes a difference. «
• Patrick Harvie MSP is co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party