'There needs to be more representative democracy in Scotland': How the Citizens' Assembly offers a new model for politics
Walking into the Citizens’ Assembly, as the room begins to settle down for the first presentation of the day, the most striking thing is how different the faces look compared to those that form the backdrop to Scotland’s most powerful institutions.
There are lots of young faces, for a start, and lots of older ones too. Gone is the dominance of middle-age seen in councils and parliaments across Scotland, and there isn’t a grey suit in sight.
Half the room, meanwhile, is female, unlike the Scottish Parliament, where 35 per cent of MSPs are women, and well above the proportion in local government, where the figure comes in at just 29 per cent, and where 103 council wards have no women in elected office at all.
The atmosphere too is very different. Unlike parliament, there is no grandstanding here. No heckling. No one sits in a space defined by their political view. There are no performative clashes. Mostly, they just sit in small groups, listening and then talking.
We have to trust that the people who came up with it will take forward our priorities
But that probably shouldn’t be a surprise, because this is not political debate in its usual form. The 115 people present have been chosen, not because they have specialist political knowledge, or because they feel particularly strongly about any one issue, but as part of an attempt to represent society more widely. This is a mini Scotland, in effect, broadly representative of the adult population (16 and over) in terms of age, gender, socio-economic class and educational qualifications, ethnic group, geography and political attitudes.
Sitting round circular tables, stacked with notes and pens, the members are tasked with creating a plan. They are expected to come up with a blueprint for the future of Scotland.
Meeting over six weekends, the Citizens’ Assembly has been instructed to consider what kind of country they want to build, how best Scotland can overcome the challenges it faces – including Brexit – and what further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices of their own.
This is participative, citizen-led democracy, and it is taking place in a hotel in Clydebank.
Strathclyde law lecturer Chris McCorkindale opens proceedings with a rollercoaster ride through 20 years of devolution, explaining the relationships between local government, the Scottish Parliament, the House of Commons and the Lords, alongside key information on where different levels of power reside. Questions from assembly members follow, touching on everything from clarification on the various powers controlling energy policy to the recently passed referendum bill.
After that, they run straight into a series of discussions, covering issues arising at previous meetings and plans for future ones, before yet more presentations, first from representatives of Scotland’s main political parties, and later from economists specialising in sustainable development.
The audience sit scribbling on notepads between presentations, trying to keep up with the sheer amount of information being fired at them. The assembly appears to be following objectives close to the UN’s sustainable development goals, with questions on the need to respond to climate change and provide affordable housing arising repeatedly in discussions.
One member, Evelyn, from North Lanarkshire, admits she needs the three-week break between each meeting to process the things she has heard.
“There is a lot of information getting packed into a very small timescale,” she says. “Assimilating everything is tough, because you want to retain it and understand it but also check if everyone else is coming from the same place you are, and make sure you have cottoned on to what they’re trying to convey.
“A lot of it you realise you already understood – it’s stuff you already knew – but you still need it confirmed. But it’s all very good.
I’ve really enjoyed speaking to people I probably normally wouldn’t
“I’m glad I am taking part, I really am. I was widowed in May and was approached just shortly after that. For me, it was a lifeline because I could have gone into a corner and cut myself off from society, whereas this has given me an opportunity to be among many different people, hear their points of view and realise how many similarities there are. Then there are differences too, but that’s life.”
She smiles. “It’s been like a therapy group, getting involved. It’s taken me away from myself, and out of my own head, and that’s something I love.”
Kate Wimpress, one of the two assembly conveners, is responsible for helping the assembly achieve its remit, as set by the Scottish Government, while also ensuring members are properly supported on the day.
She told Holyrood: “It is about enabling citizens, from whichever point in the compass they come from, to have the right information so they can make fairly complex decisions. At the centre of that is enabling them to deliberate effectively. So yes, we could have had 120 people who were steeped in the political process, but that’s not what we’ve got, and that’s why it’s so unique.”
This is the third weekend of meetings, and Wimpress admits it has taken time for participants to get used to the meetings, to become accustomed to the process, and feel more comfortable deliberating. It seems momentum is picking up.
“This is the first time we’ve done this in Scotland, it’s a new process to the assembly members, as well as everyone else. I think the first weekend there was a feeling of people thinking, ‘I’m not quite sure what I’ve signed up to here’. But after the first weekend there’s been a kind of bedding in, and it’s interesting because some of the people who you might have felt would have said, ‘no, that’s definitely not for me’ have really stepped into the room and because we have been quite careful to make sure it is accessible and we have made sure people are welcomed, there is a sense people have grasped the importance of their contribution and of the deliberation. They’ve really signed up to the task.
“I’ve actually been quite surprised at how good the atmosphere has been – you know, people have given up their weekend, they have their lives going on – but they have all signed up to this and when they are in the room, the seriousness with which they take on the tasks is quite palpable.”
The assembly is supported by a stewarding group, composed of around a dozen experts in politics, law, community engagement and citizenship. At the end of the process, members will agree key recommendations, in reference to their remit, which will form a report for the Scottish Parliament, to be debated and taken forward.
Speaking during a coffee break, one member, Tom, said he didn’t know what to expect when he made the journey over from Dundee for the first meeting: “I’ve really enjoyed speaking to people I probably normally wouldn’t – so people from Orkney, Shetland, the islands. Even people from different social classes, people that weren’t born in Scotland, it’s really like everyone is here.
“I think there needs to be more representative democracy [in Scotland], and this seems like a really good step towards that. We need to be realistic – this is the first time this has ever been done here, and the constitutional questions and debate could dominate. I am hopeful but I do have some reservations that we can escape stuff on the EU and independence long enough to really prioritise the things we can change – you know, in education, health and social care – because we actually can change them.”
But while the participants speak highly of the process, the assemblies have not been free of controversy.
Launched alongside Nicola Sturgeon’s most recent push for a vote on a second referendum, the assemblies seemed to suffer from a belief they were simply a vehicle for independence. Members dispute this – pro-independence assembly members actually told Holyrood they are trying to avoid getting bogged down in a binary choice between independence and the union – but the feeling was not helped by comments from senior SNP politicians to the contrary.
As a result, the Scottish Lib Dems continue to boycott the assemblies, arguing that as long as the SNP keeps pushing for independence – regardless of what the assembly decides – then there is no point in engaging with it.
The Scottish Tories were initially very sceptical of the assembly too, with constitution spokesperson Adam Tomkins describing the process as “nothing but a talking shop for independence”. As he saw it: “It’s another excuse to try and get people talking about the break-up of Britain – it’s a vanity project in the extreme from the SNP.”
But the party appears to have cooled somewhat, with Tory MSP Jamie Halcro-Johnson appearing alongside MSPs Richard Leonard and Angela Constance, as well as Scottish Green co-leader Lorna Slater. Yet it is debatable what sort of change might come from the assembly. The stewarding group includes David Farrell, Professor of Politics at University College Dublin and the ‘research leader’ of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, but the context in Scotland is very different.
The Irish Assembly considered issues such as abortion law, the country’s ageing population, and fixed-term parliaments. Scotland’s assemblies, in contrast, are left with a far less focused remit, covering the future of the country.
Watching proceedings, there’s a feeling in the air that would be familiar to many who lived through the heady days of the 2014 independence campaign – of ordinary people debating anything and everything, of a future up for grabs, and of a Scotland in search of what it wants to be.
But while the participants are clearly well-informed and driven to try and come together to build a better country, their recommendations will mean little if they are handed over to MSPs and treated as another excuse for Scotland’s parties – arguably more divided than they were in the post-referendum days of the Smith Commission – to fall along familiar lines and descend into screaming.
And this is the biggest difference between the politics on show in the assembly and the sort practised in the chamber, as political parties trade blows on the lines that divide them, while the assembly members come together and try to find ground upon which they can agree.
Another member, Ian, told Holyrood: “It’s quite odd to sit down with all these different folk that you don’t know and then actually find out they actually have the same views and the ideas as you. I guess maybe that’s just part of Scottish society. But it also highlights that the problems I face, where I live [in Ayr], are the same problems facing someone up north.
“In the first couple of weeks, we had so many big statements but we managed, as a group, to narrow them down to our priorities, so I think that shows that as the Citizens’ Assembly comes to a close, hopefully, we will have common ground we can all work from, or a list of priorities that we can present to government. After that, it will be up to them to take it forward. But you have to trust the process. We have to trust that the people who came up with it will take forward our priorities.”