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:
- Sovereignty of the people: how do we return power to the people?
- Defending our democracy: how do we stop vested interests having too much influence?
- 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.