Citizens’ Assembly… a second chamber for Scottish parliament?

A few weeks back I read a CommonWeal policy proposal on the subject of whether we need a second chamber to complement Holyrood and if so what kind of chamber do we want? The proposal is to set up a Citizens’ Assembly. It’s written by Brett Heddig who set up the Sortition Foundation exploring how we can do democracy differently. 

Democracy is about elections isn’t it? Voters vote, give a group of people a mandate to govern and let those people get on with it for a few years. Those people are our representatives and if we’re not happy with they do in our name, we vote for someone else next time. That’s pretty well how I  would describe democracy. Mind you it also needs a raft of supporting institutions like a free press, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, freedom of association (eg Trade Union rights), signing up to the UN Human Rights Charter, etc, etc. 

Not every agrees with that definition of democracy …. the visual is taken from Brett’s video.

I can see why elections might be called oligarchy. But I can’t see why it might be in the nature of aristocracy… aristocrats having the nature of being born into their positions. More reading up obviously required about Montesquieu.

I went to a CommonWeal event  last week. Brett was presenting the ideas in his Citizen’s Assembly paper and started off by reminding us  of  how the Greeks did democracy. Democracy was about drawing lots from the citizenry and those selected then deliberated on whatever decisions were needed. They had a very neat bit of Bronze Age technology, the kleroterion, to produce the random selection! Of course it was only a random pick of those considered to be eligible. Women weren’t eligible. Or slaves. Or foreigners. Things have improved since then. A bit. 

In a nutshell, Brett suggests as a starting off arrangement (to be tweaked later on):

  • 73 people are selected randomly from the Scottish electorate. That’s the same number as there are constituencies to Holyrood.
  • The process would allow for : age, gender, geography, and education or income level which correlate with one another.
  • People would serve for two years with a rolling system of replacement.
  • They’d receive a salary set at twice the average income.
  • These 73  would meet three days a week. Probably somewhere outside of Edinburgh.
  • They’d discuss whatever was relevant at the time which might be on the subject of recent or forthcoming legislation in Holyrood. Or it might something that is current in Scottish society that they might wish to refer to Holyrood. Or something which Holyrood asked them to consider. They could take expert advice. But the discussions and any proposals would come only from the Assembly itself.

Now look, I don’t suppose any of us expect to duplicate the House of Lords here in Scotland. Despite the very good work that the Lords is doing just now in standing up to the Tories in Westminster, I mean, come on, we’re Scots, whatever kind of second chamber we have it won’t be filled with Lords and Baronesses. But this? This would be an amazingly radical second chamber.

Is it actually too radical? Would it ever work?

Some questions certainly came to my mind when I first read about this :

  • but don’t we need experts? House of Lords has a lot of experts and they contribute a great deal of good practice-based expertise to Lords’ debates. 
  • isn’t it too much to ask of them? give up their jobs for two years? be away from home for half the week? what about childcare?
  • will they really be able to have the high level of debate that’s required? with very complex issues? and no background in either the issues or the art of debating?
  • doing jury service also came to my mind. I’ve been on three juries and each time I’ve was taken aback at how some people in the fifteen of us deliberated after hearing the evidence … a lot of it was very emotional and often biassed, either in favour or against the defendant. But on the other hand, I also think that each verdict that we reached was the right verdict. We sort of muddled through our biasses. 

Brett addressed most of my questions and others in his talk. He also made the point that we’re used to thinking of parliaments as a debating house arranged along party political lines and that we had to remember that a citizens’ assembly is a different thing altogether. It’s entirely up to the assembly how it goes about its discussions. It can be done in small groups round small tables, with a facilitator for each group. The groups can rearrange themselves and the discussion can carry in different groups. (That reminded me of Conversation Cafes that I’ve taken part in.) Small groups would help everyone to find their voice in the discussion because after all some people are more confident, more vocal than others. People can help one another to find their voice because that is in the interests of everyone, unlike in a party political setup. Though I must say most party political politicians don’t seem to have any difficulty finding their voice! when you think about it, they’re probably self–selecting in that respect. But by definition randomly selected citizens’ assemblies are most certainly not self-selecting for anything, so it will be important for the people in them to support each other. And again, that seems like it will help improve the working ethic of the assembly compared to our usual setup.

He also gave examples of where citizens’ assemblies  have already been used. In the Republic of Ireland they have been used to make proposals to the Irish Parliament on questions that are particularly tricky for Irish society and hard to debate by politicians who are looking to be elected in the coming years. One such assembly looked at the question of same-sex marriage and recommended that parliament proceed to legislate in its favour. Which it has. They have a current assembly which has been asked to look at five topics over the coming year:  the question of abortion which involves amending the Article 8 of the Irish Constitution, the ageing population, fixed term parliaments, referendums and climate change. Lots of information on their Citizens’ Assembly Eire website

If you search on YouTube you’ll find a lot more about all this, where they’ve been tried and who has come out in support of them. There is one planned in Cambridge this year. You can find videos of Brett’s talk in Glasgow – in fact there are three videos, the livelink to Facebook was interrupted. The quality isn’t fantastic but it’s OK. 

Part 1 – Intro . 5 mins

 
 

Part 2 / 15 mins

 

Part 3 / 55 mins including Q&As

 

The more I read about citizens’ assemblies, the more I’m convinced that they could play a big part in the evolution of how we do democracy in Scotland over the coming years. Independent or not. But hopefully independent 🙂

 

 

 

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