The SNP has won another term in government on a manifesto that commits to annual citizens’ assemblies. This pledge has the potential to bring significant change to Scotland’s democratic system. Alan Renwick and Robert Liao discuss how the Scottish government should go about implementing its promise and how assemblies could be used as part of the independence referendum process.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has been re-elected to power in Holyrood. Most analysis of the implications of its victory rightly focuses on the future of the Union, and whether there will be another independence referendum. But another SNP manifesto commitment also deserves the attention of those interested in the operation of the democratic system: namely, the party’s plan for citizens’ assemblies. Such assemblies have already emerged as part of Scottish politics in the last two years. Two have been held: first the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, with a remit to set out a broad vision for Scotland’s future; then Scotland’s Climate Assembly, focused on the path to net zero carbon emissions. These have been well received by all Scottish parties. Now the SNP wants to go further. Its election manifesto pledged annual citizens’ assemblies and made a commitment to ‘genuine public involvement in decision making’. There will also be a further assembly ahead of any independence referendum to help shape an independent Scotland, and an assembly to represent those aged under 16. Though the SNP fell just short of an overall majority, its Green Party allies share a similar vision: they pressed for the Climate Assembly; and their manifesto pledged to ‘formalise citizens assemblies… locally and nationally’.
The SNP’s commitments are significant, because they propose not only more citizens’ assemblies, but also their institutionalisation as regular elements in Scotland’s democracy. Such assemblies will no longer be convened on a purely ad hoc basis, but will be embedded in the system as normal and expected.
Citizens’ assemblies are increasingly used in the UK and around the world to examine difficult policy questions. But they are typically ad hoc and therefore heavily reliant on political good will – prompting the question of whether they can be built into policymaking processes more systematically. The parliament of Belgium’s Brussels region has just launched an experiment in doing exactly that. Elisa Minsart and Vincent Jacquet describe the changes that have been introduced and consider their chances of success.
Amidst wide public disillusionment with the institutions of representative democracy, political scientists, campaigners and politicians have intensified efforts to find an effective mechanism to narrow the gap between citizens and those who govern them. One of the most popular remedies in recent years – and one frequently touted as a way to break the Brexit impasse encountered by the UK political class in 2016-19 – is that of citizens’ assemblies. These deliberative forums gather diversified samples of the population, recruited through a process of random selection. Citizens who participate meet experts, deliberate on a specific public issue and make a range of recommendations for policy-making. Citizens’ assemblies are flourishing in many representative democracies – not least in the UK, with the current Climate Assembly UK and Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland. They show that citizens are able to deliberate on complex political issues and to deliver original proposals.
For several years now, some public leaders, scholars and politicians have sought to integrate these democratic innovations into more traditional political structures. Belgium recently made a step in this direction. Each of Belgium’s three regions has its own parliament, with full legislative powers: on 13 November 2019, a proposition was approved to modify how the Parliament of the Brussels Region operates. The reform mandates the establishment of joint deliberative committees, on which members of the public will serve alongside elected representatives. This will enable ordinary people to deliberate with MPs on preselected themes and to formulate recommendations. The details of the process are currently still being drafted and the first commission is expected to launch at the end of 2020. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, drafting and negotiations with other parties have not been interrupted thanks to an online platform and a videoconference facility.
This experience has been inspired by other initiatives organised in Belgium. In 2011, the G1000 initiative brought together more than 700 randomly selected citizens to debate on different topics. This grassroots experiment attracted lots of public attention. In its aftermath, the different parliaments of the country launched their own citizens’ assemblies, designed to tackle specific local issues. Some international experiences also inspired the Brussels Region, in particular the first Irish Constitutional Convention (2012–2014). This assembly was composed of both elected representatives and randomly selected citizens, and led directly to a referendum that approved the legalisation of same-sex marriage. However, the present joint committees go well beyond these initiatives. Whereas both of these predecessors were ad hoc initiatives designed to resolve particular problems, the Brussels committees will be permanent and hosted at the heart of the parliament. Both of these aspects make the new committees a major innovation and entirely different from the predecessors that helped inspire them.Continue reading →