Lesley Riddoch: Citizens Assemblies could help build a new Scotland

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No apology, no plausible excuse, not even an emergency broadcast by way of explanation. Instead Theresa May’s unilateral decision to shunt this week’s meaningful vote to the very brink of Brexit was delivered yesterday in the snug surroundings of a jet bound for Egypt.

Nice.

Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage await the referendum vote outcome on May 23, 2015 in Dublin

Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage await the referendum vote outcome on May 23, 2015 in Dublin

Theresa May’s casual rearrangement of an agreed schedule is disappointing, duplicitous, disruptive and unreliable. But who cares? Bad faith is seen as a slightly regretted but absolutely inevitable part of our “robust” political process. Maybe though, it highlights something important but generally missed. The electorate has allowed Britain’s political class to act like spoilt brats for far too long. Most ordinary members of the public possess a basic courtesy, sense of fairness, ability to empathise and willingness to listen. Yet these traits are found nowhere in the behaviour of Government or indeed the vascillating opposition. So who is more likely to find a resolution to the current Brexit crisis -- axe-grinding politicians or fair-minded citizens?

That question was debated this weekend by lawyers, activists and academics at a conference entitled, “Remaking the UK Constitution” in Oxford. Many speakers expressed the hope that an extension to Brexit might buy the time and political space needed to build faith in and pressure for a novel democratic solution -- handing the whole sorry mess back to citizens’ assemblies.

The concept is unfamiliar in Scotland and may sound home-spun or just plain whacky. But the Irish and Canadians can testify that well-facilitated groups of randomly chosen citizens have found popular solutions to thorny problems – and have conferred upon them a sense of civic legitimacy, generally absent in the formal political arena.

In Dublin during 2013, a Constitutional Convention met eight times to produce outline legislation on equal marriage. It echoed the public mood so well, that the proposal got 62 per cent backing at the referendum two years later. In 2018 another randomly selected Citizens Assembly recommended a referendum on removing the eighth amendment of the Constitution, which banned abortion in almost all circumstances. Despite fears the Citizens Assembly had gone too far, 66.4 per cent of the population backed its proposal, proving that ordinary voters can successfully resolve issues, which have been absolutely intractable for politicians.

The 99 Assembly members were chosen at random to reflect the Irish population in terms of age, gender, social class and geography. They included pro-lifers, pro-choicers and undecideds and heard from people on both sides of the abortion debate, including medical, legal and ethical specialists, and people giving personal testimonies. Members had the chance to discuss amongst themselves, to listen and reflect on the views of others on 5 weekends, over 5 months between November 2016 and April 2017.

The technique has unquestionably worked in Ireland. Could it work here?

In January, the campaign group Compass (backed by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, the Archbishop of Canterbury and novelist Ian McEwan) called for a citizens’ assembly with 500 representative members of the public picked at random to hear evidence, produce recommendations and break the Brexit deadlock. Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy picked up the idea and tabled an amendment to Theresa May’s deal suggesting citizens assemblies could disrupt the bad habits of Brexit which include “kicking issues into the long grass, placing party interests over the national interest and assuming the public are unable to cope with hard choices.”

But the idea got very little coverage, only 18 MP signatures, and some criticism from CA believers worried that the mandate was too narrow to tackle the massive social and constitutional problems underpinning Brexit, the timescale far too short and that a citizens’ assembly held under these circumstances, without genuine Government buy-in could easily become emergency elastoplast for a near terminal political condition. So the Creasy/Nandy amendment fell last month - but now, with an extension of Article 50 now looking fairly likely, it could be resurrected – given time and cross party goodwill.

This latter commodity however is in very short supply at Westminster – an institution so stuck in its ways and mired in such uncritical self belief that MPs seem unlikely to admit their own inept custodianship of British democracy has helped drive the Brexit vote and drive away any reasonable resolution.

So citizens’ assemblies may have their first substantial UK outing north of the border instead.

Last summer the SNP held four National Assemblies which let members think through issues including the vexed question of the currency to be used in an independent Scotland. The gatherings weren’t properly resourced, randomly selected and didn’t meet long enough to hear and debate evidence from a wide range of experts. But it was a start.

In December, Professor Alan Miller, who chairs the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership took things further. He published a report about safeguarding human rights in Scotland post Brexit. The report’s second recommendation is, “A public participatory process as a vital part of preparation for and implementation of an Act of the Scottish Parliament providing human rights leadership.” In other words, the Scottish Government, if it accepts the recommendations, could soon create the first Citizens’ Assembly in Britain to tackle a really substantial issue – developing a devolved human rights framework or (if independence intervenes) a written constitution including a Bill of Rights.

This prospect is causing a flutter amongst academics and campaigners south of the border. At the Oxford conference, many speakers openly encouraged Scotland to pioneer citizens’ assmeblies for the whole UK - others exhorted a swift move towards a second independence referendum as the only event catalcysmic enough to waken up the English political class. SNP members including Joanna Cherry MP will propose a summer of properly funded and randomly selected citizens juries at the SNP’s April conference, to bring together Yes, No and undecided voters to create their own vision of a new Scotland – tackling every relevant constitutional question from the voting system to the currency.

The Edinburgh MSP tweeted yesterday; “If Article 50 is extended, the SNP could use the time to build consensus, and use Citizens Assemblies to answer the big policy questions.”

Is that likely? Successive Holyrood governments have created a substantial consultation culture – but handing voters the power to frame solutions would open up a whole new energising democratic dimension. If they worked in Ireland, why shouldn’t citizens assemblies work in Scotland too?