If voters choose independence in a referendum, Scotland will need a constitution. Elliot Bulmer argues here that there are advantages to creating and debating a new constitutional document before trying to navigate the choppy waters of becoming a separate nation.
Scotland and a written constitution
Despite being rejected in the 2014 referendum, Scottish independence has not disappeared from the political agenda. With a series of recent polls showing clear majorities in favour of independence, the question is sure to be revisited.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has long had a policy of adopting a written constitution for Scotland. The party’s substantive proposals have remained remarkably consistent since the publication of a first draft constitution in 1977: a written constitution with an enforceable bill of rights largely based on the European convention, a unicameral parliament elected for fixed terms by proportional representation, and a parliamentary executive operating under a trimmed-down constitutional monarchy. In a nod to Harshan Kumarasingham’s description of India and Ceylon (as it then was) as ‘Eastminsters’, I have previously described the SNP’s constitutional plans for Scotland as a kind of ‘Northminster’ system: a Nordic-wannabe proportional variation of the Westminster Model that is infused by a desire to ‘keep up with the Johansens’, or Westminster-on-Forth, twinned with Oslo.
The Innovation in Democracy Programme (IiDP) was created in 2019 to support local authorities in using deliberative democracy – through citizens’ assemblies and associated methods – to shape decision-making and policy creation. Here, five of the key figures involved in creating and operating the IiDP outline the methods, challenges and outcomes of a programme that had to adapt and adjust to both an early general election and the COVID-19 crisis.
What is the Innovation in Democracy Programme?
The Innovation in Democracy Programme (IiDP) – established by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) – was an innovative experiment which challenged us to support local authorities to tackle a complex, local issue in a different way; we tested using a deliberative democracy process within a local government environment to change the way communities are involved in sharing and shaping decision-making. We think it’s fair to say it worked, but with lots of learning for all involved.
The programme’s aims were to:
increase the opportunities for local people to have a greater say over decisions that affect their communities and their everyday lives;
encourage new relationships and build trust between citizens and local authorities;
strengthen local civil society by encouraging participation in local institutions.
Involve, Democratic Society, mySociety and the RSA worked from March 2019 to March 2020 with three local authorities – Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council; Greater Cambridge Partnership; and Test Valley Borough Council – to involve residents in decision-making. We did this through piloting citizens’ assemblies. We were asked to support the local authorities in the following ways:
design, facilitate and report on their citizens’ assembly;
develop a digital strategy to extend the reach, transparency, and accountability of the process; and,
collect and share the local authority’s learning within and beyond their authority.
This video gives a unique insight into the citizens’ assembly process from the perspective of three participants from each of the areas.Continue reading →
The House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee has published a report about how democracy can be done better as technology evolves, which endorsed Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick’s key recommendation of a democratic information hub. Alex Walker offers an analysis of the report.
On 29 June, the House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technology published a major report, following its inquiry into the effects of digital technology on democracy. The report focuses on how the practices of many large digital technology platforms risks feeding an erosion of trust in democracy and sets out a regulatory framework designed to restore faith in the system. Importantly, it goes beyond this to look at improving digital skills and using technology to aid democratic engagement.
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 →
Citizens’ assemblies are suddenly in vogue. National, devolved and local bodies (including several Commons committees) have held or are intending to make use of citizens’ assemblies to seek guidance on topics such as climate change and social care. At the same time, senior politicians are now advocating for an assembly on Brexit. However, citizens’ assemblies are not a miracle cure: like any method of determining the public will, they have limitations. In order to explore the benefits of citizens’ assemblies, the Unit organised a seminar to discuss how they work, best practice and when they should be used. Lucie Davidson summarises the main contributions.
Joanna Cherry offered an overview of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, which was announced by Nicola Sturgeon in April. Just as Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly and Constitutional Convention were born out of a time of crisis following the financial crash in 2008, the constitutional crisis caused by Brexit stimulated the political interest necessary for the creation of Scotland’s own assembly. The Brexit process has reignited debate about the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK; Scotland voted to remain in the EU but has had ‘no say’ in the Brexit negotiations. In addition, if Brexit happens, Scots will lose their EU citizenship, despite the argument that independence was a threat to Scotland’s place in the EU being a prominent part of the 2014 ‘No’ campaign. A recent poll by the Sunday Times has indicated a majority of Scots would vote for independence if faced with a ‘no deal’ Brexit or a Boris Johnson premiership. Continue reading →