In 2017, Commonweal brought out a 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? Their proposal is to set up a Citizens’ Assembly. The proposal is written by Brett Heddig who set up the Sortition Foundation exploring how we can do democracy differently.
I took myself along to a CommonWeal event where Brett presented the ideas in his Citizen’s Assembly paper. He 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.
So how might a Citizens’ Assembly work at Holyrood?
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 pretty covered my questions in the discussion after his talk. 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.
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. Maybe as a model for a second chamber at Holyrood, maybe not. But maybe as a way of informing local authority planning and development? Or of developing a Scottish public broadcasting service? The new Scottish Social Security setup didn’t use a formal citizens’ assembly but they brought together a group of service users and asked them for their experience, views and make suggestions. And partly as a result of that consultation we have a new social security system which has adopted the working principle of fairness, dignity, respect and compassion.
Not a bad start, eh?
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