CITIZENS’ assemblies – will they work?

Unionist parties worry they’ll be packed with nationalist puppets and two have threatened a boycott. Yessers worry (more privately) that side-stepping the pivotal issue of independence, means citizens’ assemblies (CAs) will be pointless talking shops. All sorts of folk worry punters won’t understand complex issues, and the desire to reach consensus will lead to mealy-mouthed compromise.

These are perfectly understandable reservations for folk brought up in a first past the post system, that promotes confrontation over consensus and guarantees a “winner takes all” distribution of power.

But having attended the private round table and then the jam-packed public Citizens’ Assembly event in Edinburgh earlier this week, I’m confident all reservations will be confounded when the first hundred Scots take their citizens’ seats.

Why? Put simply, citizens can find solutions that elude parliamentarians and help the political process catch up with informed public opinion.

Now that may sound a bit odd. Brexit has created an unchallenged belief that voters are generally uninformed, reactionary and easily swayed. But for every Brenda from Bristol, there are hundreds of thousands of intelligent, curious citizens ready to get involved and give parliamentary democracy the kick up the backside it so desperately needs.

Consider. MPs have voted to extend same sex marriage to Northern Ireland if Stormont isn’t up and running again by October. Glory be. Support for equal marriage has been running at around 80% in Northern Ireland for several years, but DUP intransigence and the collapse of devolved Government left Northern Irish citizens looking as judgmental and lost in time as their most narrow-minded politicians.

If a citizens’ assembly had been set up in Belfast to examine equal marriage and abortion rights, those changes would have materialised sooner from the people of Northern Ireland, not the intervention of Westminster.

That’s the difference participative democracy could make. And not just across the Irish Sea.

Should some drugs be legalised to stop Scotland having the highest death toll in Europe? Scottish politicians can’t agree on the best way forward and Westminster won’t allow the consumption rooms many do favour.

Result – no progress and more deaths. Would a citizens’ assembly sift the evidence and come up with a clear, publicly endorsed strategy that’s more likely to force Westminster’s hand? You bet.

As a young South African woman awaits deportation on Arran tomorrow, should Scotland have control over immigration to prevent the predicted loss of half a million working age people by 2040?

Behind the scenes Holyrood parties probably all agree it should, but amidst the current “Union crisis,” there’s no way Ruth Davidson will campaign for a separate system, nor will the other Unionist parties who must wrest votes away from her. Result – no progress, more broken families and more depopulation.

Ironically, a citizens’ assembly would examine what the Unionist parties dare not – whether a uniquely Scottish system might work within the devolved settlement. They would also investigate whether a properly functioning system might need full independence. This kind of searching, issue-oriented, reality-checked and non-predictable examination of big “stuck” problems is exactly what the wider constitutional debate desperately needs right now.

And most poignantly, after Labour MP Paul Blomfield revealed that his father committed suicide after a terminal cancer diagnosis in the Commons this week, can we not devise a change in the law so that assisted dying is made legal in Scotland? Yes, it’s a difficult subject.

But I’d wager most Scots find it completely unacceptable that loved ones must raise the money and courage to travel to Switzerland to die at a time of their own choosing.

On all these subjects, the public are ready for change but politicians fear the business of reaching consensus and the possibility of making a mistake.

Result – no progress. It will be up to citizens to break the log-jam. It always is.

Generations of politicians – though thankfully not all – believe the public is fundamentally conservative and able to be prompted into suspicious, reactionary views by sensationalist newspapers. In essence, our politicians live in fear – of us.

Of our capacity for kneejerk reaction, populism and doublethink. And some political problems seem to prove them right. Almost everyone agrees we must tackle the climate crisis with urgency, for example, but no-one wants to be charged for workplace parking.

This is why citizens assemblies (CAs) can be game-changing. All the trials across the world show that groups of randomly picked citizens are braver, less restrained by party “red lines”, and more likely to grasp political thistles than citizens left outside the evidence-based process or by party-controlled politicians. As long as CAs are given time, a sense of mission, a specific problem to solve, facilitation to make sure the loudest don’t dominate and above all, access to evidence available from every side of the issue.

That’s what happened in Ireland. At the Electoral Society event on Tuesday night, Louise Caldwell was totally honest about her motivation for joining the Irish Citizens Assembly that considered the constitutional ban on abortion in 2016. “It was the end of the summer and I’d just spent three months with my three children.

“Then this guy comes along and asks if I want to go to a hotel in Dublin every weekend for five weeks and I’m like – yes! Adult conversation, sleep, no children, of course I’ll be there!”

But Louise went on to describe how she and her uncertain, non-activist colleagues were transformed into the focused democratic team that resolved Ireland’s most emotive and taboo issue. “At the start, maybe 10 per cent of us were definitely pro-choice and 10% definitely anti-abortion – the vast majority were in-between.

“What made us certain of our final recommendation was working together through evidence presented from a variety of perspectives. We were changed by the evidence.”

Yip, the irony screams out at you. If only such a thoughtful, trusting process had been initiated by David Cameron before the fateful Brexit referendum, which launched Britain instead on a bumpy, evidence-free path to disaster.

But there’s another interesting thing about the final Citizens Assembly recommendation on abortion – initially it scared the bejeezus out of Irish politicians for being “too radical.”

Even though, in the end, the CA view so closely mirrored the public mood that 66.4% supported it in the subsequent referendum. What does that say about Parliaments?

Maybe it says we elect fair-minded folk who rapidly get scared off sensible measures by the constant lobbying of vested interests. Mercifully in the Irish Citizens Assembly, lobbyists are banned.

So, what would politics be like if grannies, 16-year-olds, drug users, head teachers, truck drivers, wheelchair users, fishermen, long term unemployed folk and jannies, Highlanders, Lowlanders, Sikhs and priests all sat down together to work through the many “stuck” issues that keep Scotland frozen.

It would be revolutionary.

The diversity built into the average CA means it’s stappit fu with direct experience of almost every problem under the sun, and members are not so dogmatic that they reject the need for evidence.

But in this system – professionals are on tap, not on top.

So basically, all the actors involved in “normal” representative democracy are there in the citizens assembly too, but their place in the pecking order is different.

In the CA citizens initiate, interrogate, investigate, scratch their collective chins and deliver a verdict to politicians who are under considerable moral pressure to respond.

But all of this is only possible if the media enter the spirit of the democratic exercise. The moral authority of the CA is generated by the viewing public seeing the proceedings on peak-time news – that means a weekly update on Reporting Scotland, the News at Nine and STV News.

Participants only feel empowered to ask difficult questions if their names, voting histories and addresses aren’t splashed across front pages. Happily, newspaper coverage this week has been fair.

But if the media can take one step further, accept their pivotal democratic role and commit to decent, enthusiastic coverage, we could be in for something really special when the first citizens take their assembly seats this autumn.