We the Welsh people

Leanne Wood

Steve Brooks explains how Scotland offers a new approach to citizen-led political reform.

Last week Leanne Wood outlined her vision for Wales’ constitutional future and provided a road-map for self-government that her party in government would seek to pursue post-2016.

The foundation of Leanne Wood’s vision was the development of a citizen-led constitution, which the Plaid leader argued, “would put power back in the hands of the people rather than a small elite”.

Regardless of what one thinks about Welsh self-government or independence, Leanne Wood has hit the spot in identifying one of the fundamental weaknesses of constitutional politics.  Reform tends to be driven by politicians, rather than the people.

It hasn’t always been so.  Deliberative decision-making, a more involving, participatory way, is part of our history.  Up until the medieval period, peoples of northern Europe often organised their affairs on a community-basis, in folk meetings.  These people’s assemblies, or ‘things’ (‘thing’ being an Old Norse word from which many modern European parliaments and assemblies derive their name) met, often in the open air, to pass laws and resolve disputes.

It worked well as a system, but the rise and fall of absolute monarchies, the development of modern nation states and the emergence of representative democracy have led us to a position where the people rarely have an opportunity to formally express a view outside of elections.

It’s a situation that motivated the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) Scotland to launch its Democracy Max programme, the basic tenet of which is that politics is too important to be left to politicians.  Democracy Max is an inquiry into the future of Scottish democracy.   It recognises the conclusions of the Hansard Society’s audit of political engagement which found, unsurprisingly, that ‘voters are disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged’.  After countless scandals, crises and inquiries, the people of Scotland are left thinking politics isn’t working for them.  For Wales, see Scotland.

ERS Scotland spotted that the independence referendum offered an opportunity to recast how politics is done.  The referendum is not an academic, theoretical decision on what Scotland’s constitutional relationship should be with the rest of the UK.  The referendum is an opportunity to question what independence is for, and indeed, what the union is for.  Specifically, if Scotland is to become independent what should its constitution look like, how should its political system work and how should power be distributed?  And if Scotland is to remain part of the Union, what work is needed to make democracy, both within and without Scotland, better?

As much of the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future was led by political parties, ERS Scotland sought to provide a space for a non-partisan discussion of ideas.  To begin its inquiry, ERS Scotland drew inspiration from the past and convened the People’s Gathering, a deliberative discussion event which brought together 80 individuals, representative of the people of Scotland.  They were asked to imagine a scenario in which Scotland is an admired and shining example of democracy and democratic participation, and to think about which three aspects of this future society they admired the most.   The first half of the People’s Gathering discussed their aspirations, and the second half how such aspirations might become reality.  The findings of the People’s Gathering provide an alternative way of looking at constitutional reform, distinct from the government-sponsored commissions, with defined terms of reference, comprised of the great and good hearing evidence from a relatively small circle of individuals and organisations.

Three critical questions emerged from the People’s Gathering:

  1. Sovereignty of the people: how do we return power to the people?
  2. Defending our democracy: how do we stop vested interests having too much influence?
  3. How do we write the rules: how do we get the checks and balances our democracy needs?

The recommendations from the People’s Gathering were equally compelling.  While ‘constitutional obsessives’ like you and me concentrate on issues like the lock step and reserved powers, the citizens involved with ERS Scotland had different priorities.

They wanted people to be empowered to run their own towns and villages through a properly function representative democracy and through deliberative ‘mini-publics: neighbourhood meetings or ‘things’ if you like.  They supported the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly, a chamber of citizens, possibly selected like a jury to check and challenge elected politicians.  They called for transparency in party funding and a better media, so that a greater number of voices can be heard.  Public institutions, they argued, should act in a more transparent and open way with an assumption that information should be publicly available, and a statutory register of lobbyists that sets out who is lobbying whom and why.  Finally, the People’s Gathering called for a written set of principles around which Scots could unite, setting out who they, the Scottish people, are and the rules by which they are to be governed and some kind of process to ensure these principles are adhered to by the Scottish Parliament and Government.

It is, the Scottish Claim of Rights states, “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs”.

It’s a claim of rights Wales should make too.  Whether part of the union or as an independent state (that is not for ERS to argue) the people of Wales should claim and exercise power to rewrite the political rules which govern their lives.

Whether it’s a yes or no in September, Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK will change, as will Wales’.   Conversations about where power lies will be had, and decisions will be made.  Whatever the political form of those conversations, the will of the Welsh people must be heard.

Welsh hands held many of the pens which wrote the American Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.   Whatever our constitutional future holds, we the people of Wales are more than able to write the next chapter of our nation’s history.

Steve Brooks is director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru and Tweets from @stephenbrooksUK

8 thoughts on “We the Welsh people

  1. This may sound cynical, and it’s only meant as a critical observation, but is there any evidence that people actually ‘want’ to be involved in the political process to any greater extent than they are already constitutionally able to do so (stand for parish/town/county council, join advisory boards, oversight councils, vote, etc.), but patently do not? There is a myriad of ways to participate in ‘politics’ today and people choose to watch Britain’s got Talent on TV or play five-aside football instead.

    Will anyone actually turn up to the ‘Thing’ once it is instituted? Perhaps the problem isn’t in our institutions, but in our society more generally? Is this a distraction from the bigger task of turning our citizenry from being corporate processors and consumers into autonomous human beings?

  2. If history has taught us anything it is to be wary of those – from Marx and Lenin through Hitler to Tony Blair – who talk of ‘The People’ rather than just ‘people.’ Whereas ‘people’ is a definite concept, ‘The People’ is more nebulous and there has never been a shortage of characters who take advantage of that ambiguity by claiming to speak on behalf of ‘The People,’ including all the worst despots and tyrants of recent times.

    This is not cynicism about democracy but, quite the contrary, recognition that the desirable objective of a real democracy demands more than catchy slogans. It needs to be backed by a developed civic culture. It requires more participation than elections every four years after which the majority loot the minority. All voices must be heard, even the unfashionable and the unpopular. Above all, true democracy can only be founded on immutable personal freedoms.

    Constitutional arrangements are less important than civic culture but can still hinder or help. There is certainly room for more direct democracy, but its limits should also be recognised: there is a danger of it being taken over by people with time on their hands, and the opposite danger that no one will have the responsibility and authority to take the hard decisions.

    The most effective practical step that can be taken at this stage is to strip the party system of its privileged position. Open primaries and equal access to the media would be a good place to start.

  3. Having just returned from a week in Scotland, the fantastic thing there is that the peoples of Scotland – in their myriad guises – are participating in transparent political discussions; many for the first time. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, this has to be good for future democratic participation and the activation and stimulation of the electorate. At the end of the day, Scottish society will benefit from having a more engrossed and engaged public.

  4. Phil and John are on the right track, whilst Steve Brooks is way off it. It is the vibrancy of civil society that is the major factor in determining the effectiveness of democracy, rather than the structural arrangments. Active participation makes us more tolerant, trusting and empathetic, unfortunately we are becoming less active in all areas of social engagement. Membership of political parties, trade unions, associations, social clubs, church attendance, reading of local news and electoral turn out are all down and have been for decades. Unfortunately forcing people to engage with their neighbours is impossible. To fix this problem there would need to be a concerted effort to make it easier for people to engage in face to face relationships in all aspects of life. This is the crisis that we need to engage with.

  5. Wales is a million miles away from having its own constitution which is exacerbated by the fact that we seem to accept by default the English view that a constitution should be unwritten and remain so. Therefore any discussion about a written constitution in the UK context is seen as either eccentric or subversive.

    Yet in terms of building a modern democracy, discussions about the legal basis for sovereignty are essential. The reason that this is not simply an academic discussion is because it forms the basis for the rights that citizens can rely on in their daily lives. We currently operate under the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament; all of the Assembly’s powers are derived from this. How we move from that concept to that of sovereignty lying with the people is uncertain. But it is the direction we have to move in.

    Your point, Phil, is well taken. We can all run away with the idea that everyone is just gagging to participate in the democratic process when the figures show otherwise. We have yet to break the 50% turnover barrier for National Assembly elections and have not yet got back to the 1999 figure of 46.3%.

    And the question of participation is an uneven one. It is never a good idea to impose a culture of engagement but a democracy should facilitate it where a clear desire for it emerges. Tenants’ cooperatives are a good example of this but it is not a model that suits everyone. The best we can do is encourage participation where it is wanted and leave people to live their lives bringing up families, holding down jobs and taking the kids to the beach.

  6. ‘Folk’ tribal meetings! This is bonkers. We know already that, in Wales, for every local issue in a community there are at least three diametrically opposing views. If one ‘group’ of citizens proposes or supports a course of action (such as a bypass) then you can be certain that two or three other groups will oppose ‘on principle’ or with a drummed up excuse like preserving the tribal (council) leader’s view (from his hut) or a rare newt. The principle being that if ‘they have supported’ we must ‘oppose’. Some of us have read ‘Clochemerle’ the classic story that illustrates this.
    The above article is an excellent and ‘inspiring’ Utopian vision but the words ‘flogging’ and ‘dead horse’ spring to mind. If you really want true ‘democratic’ representation (God help us) then we should take the Internet to it’s logical conclusion and have a ‘voting button’ on our mobiles and ‘smart TVs’. N’est pas?

  7. Mae Leanne Wood yn arwres – hi sy’n mynd i weddnewid Cymru! Edrych mlaen at 2016 pan fydd hi’n cael ei hethol fel Prif Weinidog. Cer amdani Leanne!

  8. Plaid is the only party in Wales with proposals for the future. The other parties look to Westminster for inspiration and guidance. We can all see where that is getting us!

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