28 June 2019

The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is an innovative approach but it needs buy-in from across the political spectrum, argues Jess Sargeant.

When Nicola Sturgeon outlined the Scottish Government’s plan for holding a second referendum on independence, she also set out plans for a citizens’ assembly to consider Scotland’s constitutional future. Citizens’ assemblies can be highly successful in fostering deliberation on divisive issues. But if they are not perceived as fair and impartial then any benefits can be undermined.

The timing of the announcement created suspicion amongst unionist parties that the assembly is designed to further the cause of independence, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have already stated that they will not engage.

This is an unfortunate start. If the assembly is to facilitate a new conversation about Scotland’s constitutional future – one which bridges the divisions in Scottish politics – then it must be seen as fair, impartial and with a remit which means all sides feel able to participate.

The Citizens' Assembly of Scotland will be a real test for deliberative democracy in the UK

A citizens’ assembly is a group of representative citizens – usually between 50-200 – brought together to learn about a given topic, deliberate on the issues, and reach conclusions. Following the success of the 2016–18 Irish Citizen’s Assembly, whose recommendations on changes to the Eighth Amendment paved the way to breaking the political impasse on abortion reform, assemblies have been proposed as a way to solve a range of issues.

Though still largely unfamiliar in UK politics, a number of recent experiments have taken place. In 2017, the Constitution Unit ran a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, and last year the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care’s conclusions fed into a select committee report on the same topic. More recently, six parliamentary select committees announced that they were jointly commissioning a citizens’ assembly on the net zero carbon targets, and Rory Stewart made a citizens’ assembly on Brexit a part of his campaign for the Conservative Party leadership.

However, the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland will be the first time a high profile assembly has been sponsored by a government in the UK. This exposes it to much bigger risks, and its success or failure could well determine whether this form of deliberative democracy can become a feature of UK politics.

The Scottish Government is thinking deeply about the Assembly but the remit remains unclear

The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Michael Russell, has provided further details of how the assembly would work. He outlined seven principles – including transparency and independence from government – that would guide the assembly and its design.

While the Scottish Government should be commended for thinking seriously about this, big questions remain over the remit.

The citizens’ assembly will consider three questions:

  • What kind of country are we seeking to build?
  • How can we best overcome the challenges that we face, including those arising from Brexit?
  • What further work should be carried out to give people the detail that they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?

These are broad, vague and fail to shed much light on the assembly’s actual purpose. Russell has said that the co-convenors – the first of whom has been announced as former MEP David Martin – and assembly members will reflect on the remit. Published later this summer, it is of fundamental importance in determining who will be willing to engage – and therefore the success of the entire exercise.

There are three options which the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland could consider

The assembly could develop proposals for an independent Scotland to be put to a referendum, making recommendations on currency, a future immigration system and Scotland’s EU membership. But this is a polarised debate, and those opposed to it are likely to refuse to engage.

The assembly might be asked to compile and publish public information for a referendum campaign after examining the key issues. Research by the Constitution Unit has shown that this approach has proved successful in improving discourse in referendum debates, for example on medical marijuana and genetically engineered food in the US state of Oregon. It is crucial, if this approach is taken, that the assembly considers arguments on both sides.

Finally, the assembly could be asked to consider a range of constitutional options put forward by all parties – such as more powers for the Scottish Parliament, a federal UK, or possibly independence – and make recommendations. This poses a risk for the SNP Government, as independence could be rejected or excluded from conversation, but it would present the greatest opportunity for a genuinely open and inclusive conservation about Scotland’s future.

The Scottish Government has said it has been inspired to “find new ways to bring politicians and people together to resolve deep-seated division”. But if not everyone in Scottish society feels able to participate then this will count for little. Citizens assemblies appear to be in vogue, but if they aren’t designed with care there is a risk that they could quickly fall out of fashion.