A look at the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland provides us with the hope and the proof that Scotland desires change, and that we can and must come out of this crisis with a decisive move to the economic left.
Over the past few weeks we have seen the very worst and the very best of humanity on vivid display. The worst, as always, has been exemplified by billionaires and the individualistic right who have been putting people in danger and continuing to demean and exploit others, even as the world we know crumbles apart around them. The best has been seen in community groups, in the half a million NHS volunteers and in the people using their online access to bring a little bit of joy and hope into the lives of others in quarantine, (which should, by now, be almost all of us).
The paper-thin veil has been lifted now. The curtain has been pulled back to reveal that the wizard was always a diminutive charlatan. Capitalism, as is, cannot survive this, we would think. But what will emerge from these trying times? Will the new world of mature, socially responsible, environmentally conscious, economically just nations and communities be the one that triumphs, or will we slide back into the doldrums of increasing oligarchy, social Darwinism, misplaced hatred and planetary destruction?
The current Westminster government spent the time they were aware of and should have been preparing for this by celebrating their dubious Brexit triumph, failing to deal with flooding, trying to strip us of our human rights and then telling us we should all just take it on the chin and prepare to bury our loved ones. Still they refuse to take the necessary measures on testing, re-nationalisation of services and Universal Basic Income that are so clearly needed to deal with the ever-worsening health crisis. The response in Scotland was not perfect either but the more sensible reactions of the Scottish government showed Johnson and Cummings’ ideologically warped clown show up for what it really is in quite stark relief, and yet support for the hard-right Conservative majority in England has not wavered.
Why then should we dare to harbour any hope that we can emerge from this in a better shape than once we were? Where is the proof?
At the end of February, I was greatly privileged to attend the Scottish Citizens’ Assembly which took place at the Golden Jubilee Conference Hotel in Clydebank. While Covid-19 at this point was just the vague rustlings of a health scare in China to most of us, the people of Scotland looked at what tax and economic policy in our country should be doing going forward, and the results were revelatory.
Citizens Assemblies have been running in Scotland now since last Autumn and make the effort to be determinedly non-party political, with politicians kept out of the process. These have become popular in many countries as an experiment in utilitarian democracy and a touchstone for governments on which to build substantive legislation. The construction of the assembly takes much influence from the assembly in Ireland, where proposals recommending a change in the abortion laws led to a referendum that produced almost exactly the same percentage result as was defined by the assembly members.
They are made up here of 100 people chosen to represent a fair and balanced cross-section of Scottish society. Notably these include QCs, business owners, those of means and a fair number of Conservative Party and unionist supporters. Yet every proposal that made it to the floor, and every vote on offer, displayed what some would consider to be radical policies of the far left.
The thing is, none of this should have been so surprising. Whether or not people’s tactical voting preferences have always clearly shown this, it has been apparent for decades that the Scottish people are more left-wing, at least economically, than perhaps many other nations on this earth, and certainly far more than their English counterparts. The things receiving the greatest levels of support in February were proposals concerning higher taxes on businesses, simplifying the tax system, using revenue to protect the environment and reforming the council tax.
There wasn’t a single mention of raising V.A.T or pushing for a rise in GDP. It was people power that was on offer in Clydebank. For example, 75% favoured raising taxes on the rich, 78% expressed some agreement with raising business related taxes, 81% saw the importance of council tax reform and a whopping 86% came out in favour of ending zero hours contracts and paying the living wage, with 57% of those saying that this was of the utmost importance. All proposals were determined by the people of the assembly themselves. In fact, at times it almost felt as though I were attending a session at a Scottish Green Party conference.
“That is what happens when you listen to people and what kind of policies they want” said SGP co-leader Lorna Slater.
“I think it shows the overwhelming and undemocratic power that lobbyists and corporations have. You can see that when you get right-wing policies enacted by, for example, Tory governments, it is overwhelmingly because their donors are billionaires and tax dodging corporations. When you actually ask people what they want they come up with sensible policies. So, you can see the corrupting influence of these corporate lobbyists and billionaires and so on in our democracy and that’s one of the reasons that Citizens’ Assemblies are so powerful – because you can hear the voices of ordinary people.”
The Greens and others on the left have supported Citizens’ Assemblies for some time for these very reasons, but of course there are criticisms of the assemblies also. At the assembly in February people were split into groups, presented with the facts on public finances, (or at least the GDP and GERS figures facts), and asked to come up with proposals which could be of benefit. When these proposals were presented to be voted on however there was no debate on the proposals, simply a description of them and a call for a vote on their level of importance.
The other criticisms are obvious, these people are not elected and as such there can be understandable questions over how much influence they should have. Then again, studies have shown that they tend to accurately reflect public opinion and there are questions too over whether the government will, in fact, listen to the assembly proposals and, if not, then what is the point of them?
Lorna Slater commented on some of these criticisms saying: “The cons of it are that the government are not obliged to listen to the Citizens’ Assembly. There is no mechanism to make what the assembly comes up with government policy and to implement that and I think that’s a real shame if that happens. To go through this really exciting democratic process and then for a government to ignore the outcome of that would be very frustrating.
“I think this Citizens’ Assembly was given a very difficult task. They were given a very open question; ‘What is the future of Scotland?’ That’s really huge and really difficult for a Citizens’ Assembly to answer.
“In Ireland they were given a much more specific thing around the policy on women’s healthcare, and I think that is a much more appropriate thing for a Citizens’ Assembly to do. While I am delighted that there is a Citizens’ Assembly looking at the future of Scotland it’s such a huge topic. It’s very hard, I think, for the Scottish government to take practical policy outcomes from that. But I’m hoping that now, having had one, it becomes part of our democratic process and in the future, we can put more specific questions and the government will commit to enacting the outcomes of such Citizens’ Assemblies.”
There is a sense that, in an independent Scotland, Citizens’ Assemblies could act as an inverted form of second, (or third), chamber, in a reworking of the democratic system that sees assemblies act as the starting point for future legislation. The Tories, as could probably be expected, opposed the Citizens’ Assemblies, on the grounds that it was being used as a vehicle for independence, although that question has not been put to the assembly as yet.
The Tories, however, did at least send a representative to observe the assembly when it took place. The only party in the Scottish parliament which refused to take any part in the proceedings or acknowledge them were the Liberal Democrats.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, was keen to point out that his party do support the concept of a Citizens’ Assemblies, just not one introduced by the SNP government.
He said: “It’s quite clear that they are part of the democratic system. Involving people in political discussion is a positive thing and making sure they are more informed about the critical issues is a positive thing too.
“There are no real challenges with Citizens’ Assemblies, so long as they are soundly based on issues that are going to try and bring the country together.
“We do support Citizens’ Assemblies, we just don’t support this particular one. We think that the SNP are using it to drive forward, to nudge forward, Scotland towards independence, and we think that Scotland has had enough of constitutional division over the last few years.
“You’ll have to ask the Conservatives why they sent somebody along because they said they were opposed to it but then participated in it, so I don’t quite understand what their logic is for that. We’re just being consistent with what we said.”
In spite of opposition for various reasons all political parties appear to want to be seen at least to support the idea behind more ‘power to the people’. What that means for the future of this country though may not be quite what some of its proponents had in mind. The radical, egalitarian nature of the Scottish people is coming through quite strongly thus far, and if the proposals on tax were to be implemented it would re-shape the way that Scotland operates as a nation which is still beholden to neo-liberal, capitalist ideologies.
But these are exactly the kinds of proposals that Scotland and the world are going to need to introduce at the bare minimum if we are to #BuildBackBetter after the coronavirus crisis and if we ever going to create a just and sustainable future for our children, grand-children and beyond.
Despite Tory and Liberal protestations, the Citizens’ Assemblies are proving that Scotland is quite a drastically different nation from its southern counterpart and is taking quite a radically different approach to discussions about and conclusions for its future. Whatever our politicians might want or not, this is a people’s assembly, and the people of Scotland want change. The democratic deficit has never been starker.
Were a similar assembly to take place in England would the results be massively different? Possibly, possibly not, but the fact that Scotland and its institutions want to be asking those questions sets it apart from the rest of the U.K in terms of its political outlook and general sociological culture.
One of the fathers of ‘western democracy’, Aristotle, (a student of Plato who himself expressed beliefs that democracy itself bred selfish individualism and monetary obsession), once wrote that: “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.”
Citizens’ Assemblies are an attempt, at least, at allowing for a more representative form of democracy that aims for precisely that. If all citizens are truly to share in the decisions of government in Scotland, it is quite likely that those decisions will set us on a path to one of the most socialistic and environmentally conscious democratic nations in the western world.