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Citizens Assemblies for Scotland

Joanna Cherry MP argues that Scotland can learn from the Irish example of using Citizens Assemblies to make decisions about difficult divisive and deep problematic issues.

Many now agree that Brexit is likely to be the catalyst that delivers a majority for Scottish independence. Not necessarily because Scotland will be taken out of the EU against her will, although that is very much still on the cards, but because the Brexit process has shown clearly that the United Kingdom is not an equal union and that devolution alone cannot protect Scotland’s interests from being subordinated to those (whether real or imagined) of our larger partner. In addition, the negotiations have also provided a good example of what real equality in European Union looks like for a small nation state such as Ireland.

As we wait for an announcement from the First Minister on the timetable for Indyref2, the need to take with us a substantial portion of those who voted No last time is well recognised within the SNP and the wider Yes movement. How to achieve that is more problematic. It cannot be left just to the activists on the doorsteps. Nor can it only be a matter for SNP conference policy making. Something more inclusive and deliberative is required.

I believe that a Citizens Assembly is the way forward, providing a tried and tested method for building consensus on some of the big policy issues we face and a way to create a vision of an independent Scotland in which people can trust.

Earlier this year I attended a conference organised by the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford on “Remaking the UK Constitution”. We heard evidence about exercises in participative and deliberative democracy exemplified by Citizens Assemblies from across the world and there was input from closer to home from myself, Lesley Riddoch and Adam Ramsay. There was discussion tinged with a degree of scepticism about the potential role of a Citizens Assembly in breaking the Brexit deadlock (this has been suggested by Stella Creasy MP among others). However there was consensus that Citizens Assemblies could be used to great effect in Scotland as we move towards a second independence referendum.

Citizens Assemblies have been held in Canada, USA, Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Belgium and Spain. But I think the one held closest to home provides the best example of what can be achieved. Ireland’s experience shows that Citizens Assemblies can address complex and divisive issues successfully and lead to positive outcomes. Most people know that the successful referenda on equal marriage and abortion rights were preceded respectively by a constitutional convention and a citizens’ assembly. However they don’t necessarily realise that the deliberations of the Citizens Assembly were not confined to constitutional issues and that it also addressed climate change and the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population (both issues of huge importance to Scotland).

Ireland’s Convention on the Constitution was established by resolution of both houses of the Irish Parliament in 2012. Its membership was made up of 66 randomly selected citizens, 33 politicians from both houses of parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly and an independent chairperson. It looked at 10 specific aspects of the Irish constitution and made recommendations for change, most famously on marriage equality which lead to the referendum at which marriage equality passed by a majority of 62% to 38%. More information on the work of the Convention is available on its website here.

In 2016 both Houses of the Irish Parliament passed a resolution setting up the Citizens Assembly to address five discrete topics; abortion; the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population; making Ireland a leader in climate change; the manner in which referenda are held; and fixed term parliaments.

The assembly had 100 members, made up of a Chairperson appointed by the Government and 99 citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected to be broadly representative of Irish society. Members of advocacy groups on the topics considered were excluded from membership but instead invited to make submissions. The selection process was conducting by a research and marketing company appointed following a competitive tendering process. More can be read about the methodology on the website here.

Random selection is a defence against domination by the usual channels of economic and social power. In Scotland I would like to see the selection base include EU citizens and others resident here for a significant period of time.

The Irish assembly appointed a steering group from within its membership assisted by a secretariat. It was also assisted by an Expert Advisory Group who, amongst other things, advised on the criteria for selecting experts to appear before the assembly. The experts are there to assist the assembly; they are described as “on tap’ rather than “on top”.

On abortion deliberations took place at weekend sessions held once a month over a six month period. The final report and recommendations were produced within two months of the last meeting. Assemblies on less controversial topics were conducted over shorter timeframes of one or two weekends.

At SNP conference next week a resolution mandating the Scottish Parliament to set up a Citizens Assembly will be moved by myself and SNP activist and Office Bearer Chris Hanlon, with the support of the Edinburgh Central and Sighthill/Stenhouse branches. There will also be a fringe meeting sponsored by the Electoral Reform Society at which myself and Chris will be joined by a panel including Willie Sullivan from the ERS, Dr Oliver Escobar of What Works Scotland and Lesley Riddoch.

The CA in Ireland had significant political impact because they were established by political authority. Their democratic legitimacy came from the requirement to report to parliament who then acted on their recommendations. Given the pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, made up of SNP and Scottish Green MSPs, it seems likely that there would be a majority for proceeding if the resolution is passed and a majority for taking any recommendations seriously.

The Scottish Government is already committed to a Citizens Assembly on Human Rights having recently welcomed a recommendation from the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights that there should be a public participatory process, including consideration by Citizens Assemblies, prior to introducing an Act of the Scottish Parliament to provide human rights leadership, or if independence intervenes, a Bill of Rights for a Written Constitution.

Other topics which the CA could tackle might include, for example, the currency issue and Scotland’s future relationship with Europe and the wider world, but there are a wealth of other important issues which could be considered.

Comments (18)

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  1. Alastair A Macdonald says:

    Excellent ideas and very well worth moving forward on rapidly.
    Do not let these ideas collect ‘dust’ in the SNP’s current ‘measured way forward’ concept of progress.

  2. Mark Bevis says:

    Yes, Citizen’s Assemblies, excellent idea, also something XR demands of government. I would imagine here in England we’ll be the last place to get them unless something dramatically changes.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    The idea of Citizens Assemblies seems well worth trying out. The trick would seem to be in networking them into a collective intelligence within a continuously-improving system with self-regulation towards optimal properties (size of group, lifespan, major and minor connection with other groups, and so forth). I guess there should be a presumption towards transparency (public monitoring) and openness (for example, accepting inputs and new/replacement members/experts if indicated). Experiments could be conducted by running parallel groups to see if they come up with similar recommendations.

    Democracy should be hard work, at least in our complex, fraught and changing times, and citizens should expect to be pressed into it.

    How does this ‘random’ selection process usually work? I suppose there are always incentives for naughty tampering.

  4. Penny says:

    MP Cherry has provided an informative summary, including much welcomed links to specific resources. I would add the following regarding the promise of CA to instate democracy in what remains a highly centralized political structure. As Riddoch’s work has shown, local democracy in Nordic countries allows more resilient abd responsive democratic processes. There ought to be CA on the dreaded subject of how we fund the services managed by local councils…managed I would argue but not actually governed because councils they have so little financial flexibility.

  5. Jo says:

    I greatly admire Joanna Cherry and was very pleased to see so many English people commenting, on various sites, that they had found a new respect for the SNP MPs because of the responsible way they’d approached Brexit debates throughout this whole debacle. They were in utter despair over the antics of many in the other main Parties and wished they had the option of voting SNP. They were envious that we in Scotland have other options, in many ways.

    I admit I’m lukewarm on CAs but perhaps my natural cynicism on “random selection” is behind that. I’m finding it hard to shake off.

    I’m also thinking, how long before we’re told we need the “right” gender balance on the CA, the “right” representation level from rich/poor communities, the “right” number from ethnic minority groups, the right number from LGBT communities and of course, this being Scotland, the “right” number of Tims and Proddies? And then I got depressed again.

    I’m sorry. I honestly will try to be more positive about the idea.

    1. Robert says:

      Fair points Jo. It’s not about whether we get Citizens’ Assembly(s), it’s about how they come about, how empowered they are, how the people are selected, etc. Civil society support is essential to push an idea like this through and make it actually work. We can’t leave it up to the politicians.

      1. Jo says:

        Thanks Robert.

        I think with all that’s going on just now I’m just feeling burnt oot!

    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:


      With us having been exposed to a very cynical media for most of our lives – and I infer that you, like I, have lived through many tens of summers – it becomes almost a default to slide into the ”not-another-‘good’-idea” weariness, that it will pass and something new will take its place. Couple this with the grossly unfair first-past-the-post electoral system and two major parties comfortable in their complacency and excluding the huge majority of the population from engaging in politics, it becomes hegemonic to be quiescent.

      However, with the Scottish Parliament being elected by a proportional method, and a different method used in Council elections, with the Scottish referenda (including the 1979 one, the growth of feminism, eco-politics, and other extra-parliamentary activities, I think we have a population that is far more knowledgeable and capable of insightful thinking than the media stereotypes suggest.

      I worked for almost 40 years in Scottish secondary schools and I say with great confidence that we have produced huge numbers of well-educated, rounded, mature, humane young people than we did when I was at school – and I was one of the chosen few (i.e. c35% of the population) who passed his ‘qualy’ and, eventually joined an even smaller ‘few (c7%) who went to university. There has been no ‘dumbing down’ in education. What has happened is that the huge creative potential within the population has been nurtured by comprehensive education and the health service. The wilfully criminal economic model we operate under, which is designed to serve the interests of the very few is using ‘austerity’ to curb this empowerment, mainly by means of unemployment, poor employment conditions, cruel ‘welfare’, ‘hostile environments’, etc.

      One of the most exciting things about 2014 was the sense of enthusiasm, the hope, the creativity, the intergenerational connections that were generated. We might not have won, but we certainly shook the complacency and, probably, destroyed the Scottish Labour Party as a credible player in Scottish politics.

      There is international evidence that citizens’ assemblies are effective and produce insightful solutions. However, they need to be coupled with a significant change in the constitution to devolve powers and finance to the local level and, from that to even more local levels. This engages people in the things that are important to them and effect their daily lives – refuse collection, local parks, schools and nurseries, street lighting, etc and, most of all HOUSING.

      I am sure you can be an aset to such a polity, Jo!

      1. Jo says:

        Thanks so much for that response.

        I think the main emotion I’ve been aware of lately is fear. No matter where I look I see reasons to feel that way because, on so many things, views are polarised and there’s no appetite for debate or compromise. Dialogue is hostile or even hateful. And, of course, in the Brexit business, we’ve seen worse than that.

        I am increasingly horrified by what passes for political debate especially. I can barely distinguish between politicians and journalists and see both as equally dishonest. I think the UK media is utterly lost in a sea of fake news and political spin. That leaves many not just uninformed but, too often, misinformed. Deliberately. When the worst offender is the BBC, itself publicly funded, what do you do?

        What worries me most is that so many people don’t seem to care. Too many are more interested in the final season of Game of Thrones. Or, worse, in the latest bunch of young people willing to do absolutely anything to achieve “celebrity” by appearing in ghastly “reality” shows (which are anything but real). They’re willing to shed their modesty, their clothes or anything else required in pursuit of fame without having displayed a single skill or talent on the way. They’re willing to be exploited to any level. And the public are sitting watching and lapping it up.

        Here’s a daft thing. I’m increasingly seeing all these young women all going about looking like clones! They all have artificial eyebrows which don’t move. Even the blondest of them have these dark accessories hovering just above their eyes! What is that about? I have a horrible feeling their role models are from those “reality” shows.

        My biggest fears are for the planet and the futures of my great nephews and nieces as our generation carries on destroying it. I see the casualties of our greed washed up on beaches and hear the results of autopsies, carried out on these once majestic dwellers of our seas, which reveal the total breakdown of their digestive systems due to the presence of 88 POUNDS of plastic we have dumped into their environment. It is obscene. Man is surely the most dangerous and selfish creature on the planet.

        I recently reached my 60th birthday and I’m suddenly aware of how certain I’d been, at 18, that my generation could achieve a great deal and effect change. I’m disappointed, to put it mildly. I lost count of the number of hours I chalked up listening to Brexit debates in the Commons in recent months and became more and more horrified by the day about what looms ahead of us. And I know Scotland could escape it if we chose that path but the Independence debate is just as skewed as the Brexit one and I wish we could inject balance into it. Sadly, the media is determined to polarise there too.

        Sorry if I’ve depressed everybody.

        1. david cox says:

          Not depressed at all and I just realise from your response that you are truly a genuine human being and not an automaton, your words are very inspiring. Many thanks for being so frank and honest as it gives me faith going forward that there are good people at Westmister and please be assured that we will succeed in attaining Independence for Scotland-nil carborundum.

  6. Elaine Fraser says:

    I also have great respect for Joanna Cherry MP. But before we start talking about Citizens Assemblies how about the Scottish Government and SNP start listening to 52% of the population of Scotland about their hard won sex-based rights including basics like freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Many, many women were active during Indy Ref 1 and now feel utterly betrayed.

  7. John McLeod says:

    Completely agree – Citizen Assemblies are essential. The sooner we get started the better. Once we win the next independence referendum, there will be a need to convene assemblies on many topics, to feed in to the process of building a new country. We need to learn how to do assemblies effectively, in a way that works for Scotland. Other forms of democratise innovation are necessary as well.

  8. John McLeod says:

    Completely agree – Citizen Assemblies are essential. The sooner we get started the better. Once we win the next independence referendum, there will be a need to convene assemblies on many topics, to feed in to the process of building a new country. We need to learn how to do assemblies effectively, in a way that works for Scotland. Other forms of democratic innovation are necessary as well.

  9. Bill Ramsay says:

    Citizens assembly’s have real utility as the article well illustrates. However there are some other tools in the box that need to be explored. One of them is trade union density. In Iceland its 91.8% of all employees. Consider where Iceland was not that long ago and consider where it is now.

    The 67% figure in Sweden is quite a useful bulwark against electoral shifts to the right.

    One can only imagine the quality of the discourse on all matter though notably the Growth Commission proposals if we were anywhere near that.

    Bill Ramsay

  10. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    Citizens’ Assemblies are an idea whose time has clearly come, as a way of taking forward a project of ‘radical democracy’. This is needed to foster a sense of political inclusiveness and to ensure that real change comes about. Look at Ireland to see how far this nation came in a very short time – radical changes effected by large majorities of citizens, and to admiring applause from other states and nations.

    Yes, much better support for trade unions is a foundation for ‘fairer’ work and conditions of employment. Indeed, worker participation in all kinds of enterprises is a way of ensuring a continuing focus on an organisation or company’s social usefulness, as well as its financial bottom line.

  11. david cox says:

    Very laudable and in principle I would certainly support CA’s as inclusive and a way forward. Where I am unsure is how CA’s reach out, communicate and convince your No/unsure Scots of the error of their ways?

  12. Mike Flaherty says:

    Great idea.

  13. Kevin McDermott says:

    I have been involved in a few mini-public’s which is essentially the same thing with groups of local residents coming together to discuss local issues. The most effective ones have been those where there is a real issue on the table and enough space and time for people to understand the issue from different perspectives.
    My observations of the process are that it reaches well beyond the usual suspects and generates discussion in and across communities. People who do not normally interact with each other have a safe facilitated space that allows for genuine dialogue and deliberation.
    In most that I have been involved in the final recommendations are not what people instinctively would have gone for at the start of the process – dialogue does seem to increase understanding and helps to build some sort of consensus- and even if people do not agree totally with the outcome they are normally positive about the process that got the group to their decision.
    People have been paid an incentive to take part in sessions and this has been crucial in involving some. From our evaluations this applies to around a third of participants. Significantly people often say that once they have taken part in the first session their fears disappear and they are keen to attend the remaining sessions but without the incentive they would not have attended the first session.
    My own view is that things like mini-publics and other approached need to be widely adopted in Scotland so that we get to a stage that most of us know someone who has been involved in one – it just becomes a norm of how people are involved in shaping services and informing decision making.

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