Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to establish a “Citizens’ Assembly” in order to “build agreement” on Scotland’s constitutional future.
The First Minister said the polarisation of political debate around Brexit should act as a warning against trying to “ignore or suppress” differing views about the future of the country.
Despite announcing a new drive for a second independence referendum before 2021, she said a Citizens’ Assembly – similar to that created in the Republic of Ireland which dealt with abortion law – would be adopted in Scotland to discuss the constitution.
“The principle is a sound one and I believe we should make use of it,” she said.
“So I can confirm that the Scottish Government will establish a Citizens’ Assembly.”
She said the Assembly would bring together a “representative” cross-section of Scotland chaired by a politically independent person, and would lay a “foundation that allows us to move forward together, whatever decisions we ultimately arrive at”.
Its role, she added, could be to consider “what kind of country are we seeking to build? How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit? And what further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?”
Brexit Secretary Mike Russell has been given the task of seeking views from the other parties in the Scottish Parliament on how an assembly could operate and what its remit would be.
However, the Scottish Conservatives dismissed the idea as a “gimmick”.
Chief whip Maurice Golden said: “Like all the other warm-worded stunts the Nationalists suggest, the chances are this will have no positive impact at all. Citizens have already voted for an assembly – it’s called the Scottish Parliament.”
Citizens assemblies have been used in countries including Australia, Canada and the US to address a range of complex issues.
The Irish parliament established one to address abortion after a decision had been made to have a referendum on the issue.
That assembly, which involved 99 people meeting in Dublin over a series of weekends, considered the country’s abortion laws over a five-month period in 2016-17 and produced a report which ultimately helped to shape the proposals that country’s abortion law.
In the UK, several groups and politicians have suggested adopting a form of citizens’ assembly to find a way to break the Brexit impasse.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown has said the extension to Brexit would allow time for assemblies across the country be established to develop new approaches and re-establish trust lost between MPs and their constituents.
Asked if Scottish Labour backed the idea, a spokesperson said: “Scottish Labour backs more powers for the Scottish Parliament, a federal UK and a reformed House of Lords, so we’ll always take part in constructive, meaningful debate – as we did during the Smith Commission.”
Alison Johnstone of the Scottish Greens said she welcomed the idea, but added: “This body cannot simply be a talking shop. We will put pressure on the Scottish Government to ensure that this body is listened to and shapes government policy.”
Labour MP Stella Creasey who backs an assembly to look at Brexit, has said Citizens’ Assemblies “help politicians hear what the public think, not replacing parliamentarians but producing reports to inform the decisions elected representatives make”.