Hacking a Scottish Constitution


Iceland’s ‘pots and pans’ revolution

As Scotland explores a Citizens Assembly and National Council to build a new constitution (‘Move to stop politicians carving up an indy Scotland‘) we are looking for inspiration and advice from elsewhere. As the surge of energy for a better democracy gathers momentum, we are exploring how to drive that forward.

What can we learn from the Icelandic experience?

There’s much talk of the nordic model, but what can we learn from our neighbours to the north? In the wake of the financial crisis, Iceland was a beacon of democracy in its attempt to create a new constitution. A process of radical democratisation was attempted. Information activist Smári McCarthy has written:

After the government collapsed, a new social democrat and left-green coalition took over. Amongst the many things they promised to do was work towards a new constitution. The shortcomings of the old Danish hand-me-down constitution was not the cause of the collapse, but they certainly didn’t help. The call for a new constitution was as much a demand for cleansing as it was for a reconstitution of our values.

Bella is delighted to bring Smári McCarthy to Edinburgh for a public seminar at Summerhall, Saturday 14 June 6.30 – 8.00 pm to tell his story and to inspire and guide the Scottish process.

For more background on the Icelandic experience read also: “From the people to the people, a new constitution”  by Thorhildur Thorleifsdóttir from Open Democracy and also “The Kitchenware Revolution, The true story of how Iceland beat the Credit Crunch” on qcommunicate .


Book your ticket for Crowdsourcing the Constitution – Lessons from Iceland with Smári McCarthy here.


Smári McCarthy is an information activist, free software developer and author. He has worked globally on issues of democratic participation, information security, access to information, civil liberties, and social and economic justice. He invented Liquid Democracy in 2007, worked with Wikileaks in 2009-2010, and is a core developer of Mailpile. He co-founded the International Modern Media Institute (IMMI), the Shadow Parliament Project, the Icelandic Digital Freedoms Society, the Constitutional Analysis Support Project (CAST) and the Icelandic Pirate Party. He currently works at ThoughtWorks on defending the free Internet.

Comments (28)

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  1. Stan Reeves says:

    What ever happened to the Civic Forum? funded by the parliament from 1999 to 2008. There is a website with a false land address Civic forum in Scotland which is sort of sketchy? Any ideas?

    1. Steve West says:

      The Scottish Civic Forum closed down in mid-2008. Their old website domain name expired and was taken over in 2011 by somebody else who is entirely unconnected.

  2. picpac67 says:

    Whilst Icelanders certainly deserve praise for the way they responded to the bank crisis, their ‘democratic’ response in terms of changes to the way politics are done – in particular in terms of the participatory or direct democracy many in Scotland are aware is the only way out of the party-dominated ‘business as usual’ pseudo-democracy – has been disappointing. My colleague, direct democracy campaigner and expert Bruno Kaufmann, director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (a native Swiss citizen now living in Sweden and who, as Northern Europe correspondent for Swiss Radio, covered the developments in Iceland), summed up the democratic balance-sheet as follows:

    “Whilst being hailed as a “model of crisis management” by established media like The New York Times, social movements like Attac have praised the “direct democratic revolution” in the Arctic as a blueprint for change. But as Icelandic politics is really local, remote and hard to follow from abroad, factual information about what really happened – and continues to happen – in the aftermath of the big crisis has been quite selective, and often overlooks both the confrontational nature of party politics and the complexity of the democratisation process, which has now produced far less concrete outcomes than were desired – or feared [by some].”

    The reality is that Iceland is an inherently conservative country. A far better model of constitution-making is provided by Kaufmann’s native country, Switzerland, and especially by the Canton of Zurich, which developed and approved (in a referendum) a truly remarkable new constitution – with full popular participation. Its full panoply of popular political rights is something that any true Scottish democrat would give his or her eye teeth for. Any constitutional assembly worth its salt would make an in-depth study of the Zurich Constitution mandatory. It might also look favourably on the fact that Switzerland’s central government consists of 7 individuals from 4 different parties, while each of the 26 cantons has its own constitution and government. Direct democracy pervades the Swiss system right down to the local council level – meaning that effective political power is widely dispersed, as it should be.

    I can email digital copies of my translation of the constitution to anyone interested. Requests to: [email protected].


    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Paul, really interesting

  3. Les Wilson says:

    I find your comment strange,( ‘Move to stop politicians carving up an indy Scotland’) I would like to
    think that you are talking about future Scottish Governments and not the present one.
    The Scottish (SNP() government have just done an investigation of the whole land, owned by big estates in order to return land to the people. I personally think that is admiral, and a long time coming.

    If this goes ahead it will make much more land available for agriculture development of all kinds, and will help the growth of existing and new communities. Thus benefiting rural communities in particular.Also the overall economy. Power to the people. So you need to clarify what you mean by the comment.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hi Les, thanks for the comment. First up it wasnt my comment its the headline of the Sunday Herald story we linked to. Second, whilst the land reform proposals are admirable and exciting, they are not what this refers to. We are referring to the process of making a new constitution for the new Scotland in the event of a Yes vote, and advocating a participatory process in doing this, rather than a new set up being ‘handed down’.

    2. A problem with the Scottish Government proposal for returning land to the people is that they want the people to buy the land. The land was stolen from the people generations ago.It should be sequestrated and given to the people.

      1. mikeinkwazi says:

        Ah! an African solution. When farmers have worked the land ,generation by generation they should never be kicked off to pander to a political envy. You give no value to their lives but ‘sequestrate’ the land (in stupid little plots?) for idiots ruin. Farming is not gardening! Food production is very important, so if this mad project goes ahead money must pass.

  4. G. P. Walrus says:

    If a new constitution is to be written, I’d want it to be by people we voted in to do it, not a self-appointed group of “democrats”. I absolutely agree with the need for decentralised participative democracy and it is god that talking shops are springing up but that is all they are. Government is by content and new systems need to be accepted – are we ready for that?
    I do like the Swiss model (what little I know of it) but I expect we need to evolve our own model over time. We need to get our broadcasting and media pluralised and democratised before we can support the national conversation required to have radical thinking gain mainstream acceptance.

    1. G. P. Walrus says:

      god -> good, content -> consent

  5. Dan Huil says:

    After Scotland regains its independence I think we should consider establishing a republic, or, at the very least, write into the Constitution a clause stating the monarch’s position as head of state is not based on hereditary but on the will of the Scottish people. How about a referendum on the monarchy after Elizabeth the First, Queen of Scots, finally departs?

    1. Muscleguy says:

      Certainly the constitution needs to have in it that the head of state must swear to serve the people of Scotland who are sovereign or words to that effect. Which should be no problem for an elected president or a progressive monarch but the Windsors may well balk, especially a new one.

      If we must have a monarch after independence then we should go back to the separate coronation and declare the throne of Scotland vacant if it doesn’t happen. We will not just be another Commonwealth country but back in the period between the union of crowns and the union of parliaments.

      We don’t have to make the coronation amenable either. Outside at Boot Hill should suffice I think. That would be a nice link to the past, appropriate for a monarchy too.

  6. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    Go back to basics. Establish, should enough of us actually vote for indie, an ad hoc constitutional forum to reform and, importantly, oversee the way our country is governed in the light of our historical experience and in accord with our nation’s various socio-cultural perspectives. The quality, calibre and probity of our “citizen deputies” and the accountability of the administrative context in which they function ought to be of paramount concern. We might consider the question of whether being “a politician” should, for many, be job for life. Indeed what “politics” truly means beyond the current functionally narrow, utilitarian usage. A republican, popular democratic constitution is a must as is a revolution,a resetting, in the way we see ourselves; UK unionist default, even with updates, is passé.

    1. picpac67 says:

      I fully agree. The current form of pseudo-democracy practised everywhere is a mess of pottage “the people” (citizens, not subjects) have been conned into accepting in place of their birthright as free members of society who have a right to co-determine the sort of world they – not some minority of either politicians or bankers or robber barons of multinational companies – wish to live in. The people came (and should come) before the state. Two-thirds of the constitutions of the countries of Europe affirm the fundamental principle that “all power derives from the people” – even if in practice that principle is not adhered to.

      These are not new ideas, even if they now seem revolutionary. The French and Russian revolutions went badly wrong, but there was nothing wrong with the slogans of the former: liberty, equality and fraternity. We have seen how an economic system based on selfishness and greed fractures societies and the environment. Adam Smith needs to be laid to rest. A sustainable economics – and a society at ease with itself – need to be based on solidarity and the fine distribution of power down to the lowest efficient level. People are not stupid. They know how to organise their lives cooperatively, given the chance. Can Scotland do it? Of course – where there’s a will there’s a way. But it would be foolish to ignore the deadweight of history and tradition and engrained privilege. Much would have to change.

      1. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

        The “wonder” of the opportunity before us to renew and regenerate our society may frighten the life out of some. Opportunities for hapless experimentation and meddling they might cry indifferent to the fact that their lives have been shaped by a low value what-you-see-is-what-get system over which for centuries they effectively have had little control. Independence is lush new territory. Entering it involves an element of risk, a good deal of trust and a mountain of faith in yourself and your people. Above all it offers hope and the shock and excitement of the new; without that we might all just as well stay in bed.

        1. picpac67 says:

          Great comment …

      2. Douglas says:

        To be fair to Adam Smith, he is not the neo-liberal Thatcher made him out to be. He explained how the division of labour works and what it yields, and he advocated bringing down trade barriers between nations.

        But he also warned against letting the market dictate everything, predicting that if left to do so, it would cause huge social divisions, He advocated free education before almost anybody did.

        His concept of “sympathy” and a “fellow feeling” as being an innate part of what it means to be human should always be considered along with his economic theory. Smith considered “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” to be his most important work, not “The Wealth of Nations”. He didn´t think of himself as an economist so much as a moral philosopher.

        He discounted that the governments of European nations would ever undercut workers at home by relocating abroad for that very reason, “sympathy” plus patriotism. He saw patriotism as something which would automatically temper undercutting local workers. There he was wrong.

        Long and short, he isn´t the neo-liberal bogeyman he is so often made out to be. If you can say such a thing, today he would probably be a social democrat…

        1. picpac67 says:

          Thanks for the correction. It’s unfortunate that his “invisible hand” metaphor was the one that stuck. But that was what suited predatory capitalism – as the metaphor of “survival of the fittest” suited the social Darwinists, both then and now. Even Marx had some wonderful ideas – “From each according to their talents, to each according to their need” – which got lost when power corrupted his followers. On that theme, a recent ad in The Economist for a new Jaguar model has this blatant appeal to egomania: “SO ALIVE, SO CORRUPTING. Once you have power, it’s hard to let go”.

        2. picpac67 says:

          Further to your reply about Adam Smith, I’m sure you would be interested to hear what former chief of staff to Colin Powell Lawrence Wilkerson had to say about him – and about much else to do with America’s parlous democratic and economic situation – on the recent podcast interview with OpEdNews editor Rob Kall entitled “Blood on the streets”, in which he emphasizes Smith’s recognition that capitalism’s predatory and monopolistic tendencies had to be restrained by essentially moral forces – both by government and organized labour – neither of which are functioning as they should in most modern so-called democracies.

  7. Douglas says:

    Thanks picpac67….here´s something about the history of the term “the invisible hand” which was published in The Bottle Imp not long ago, in case it might be of interest:


  8. MacLeod says:

    It’s been ripped to shreds since Kennedy was assassinated, some say for trying to uphold it, and Obama has re-written the whole thing with his Executive Orders – and Nixon shot it to hell when he dislocated the Dollar from actual gold and gave US finance away to International banking cartels – but I suggest using the original American Constitution as a sound starting point for an independent Scottish nation.

    It was disillusioned and expelled-from-their-homeland Scots who helped write the US Constitution after all so there’s also a exquisite irony there. Values don’t change.

    1. picpac67 says:

      Maybe … at least we should be thinking of incorporating some of the original elements of the early understanding of the relationship between “the people” and government – such as Madison’s statement that:
      “All power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from, the people. That government is instituted and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty and the right of acquiring property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. That the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purpose of its institution.”

      ‘Whenever’ means ‘at any time’ – not just every four or five years in parliamentary elections. The people must have the right to challenge and strike down legislation – as they do in Switzerland. Any constitutional amendment calls for an obligatory referendum. Any law can be challenged – and new laws proposed – by citizens’ initiative, which must be supported by a fixed number of signatures for the initiative to go forward to a referendum, at which a simple majority decides the result.

      A recent example of ‘people power’ (i.e. real democracy) was the referendum rejection of the Swiss government’s proposal to buy 22 new fighter jets. Since the cost would be borne from taxation, it was the citizens’ right to decide how their money should be spent.

  9. ticketwall says:

    Will the seminar be recorded in any way for those of us not able to attend?

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      We’re working on it

  10. picpac67 says:

    One of the ways real democracy is implemented in Switzerland. The article and video shows the 727-year old practice in the small canton of Glarus – harking back to the origins of popular democracy in ancient Greece: http://www.democracy-international.org/cool-and-calm-direct-democracy-switzerland.

    At the other end of the spectrum is Switzerland’s now formal endorsement (after a trial period) of e-voting.

    Both forms – and intermediate versions, depending on circumstances (and probably weather!) – could be practised in an independent Scotland in which the principle of popular sovereignty – i.e. the finest practical distribution of power – was implemented at every level.

    For such a system to work, of course, a culture of real democracy needs to be created. Switzerland has a long head start, but with modern communication methods – and a real desire for radical change – things could happen very quickly. Good decision-making needs time, knowledge, intelligence, true facts (not lies and spin from vested interests – such as the ‘Better Together’ campaign), a deep sense of justice and a caring for people and the environment. Short-termism and the impulse to make quick fixes are enemies of democracy.

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