Ian Paterson argues there are ways of producing proficient politics
Us Scots are kidding ourselves, if we think we’re a good example of democracy. In years to come, future generations will look back at us, as an example of how not to run a society. So what is our crooked version of democracy? We take our political beliefs into the polling booth, cast our vote and lend our power to a politician to act for us – representative, parliamentary democracy. Except, the politician we vote for may not win their seat – and then we go unrepresented. Or if they do win, it’s unlikely they will tackle every issue, as we’d want them to. Perhaps, they’ll be whipped into supporting their party line or corrupted by lobbyist interest groups.
In referendums, we ask millions of lay men and women to make complex decisions, based on often-shoddy information – remember the ‘£350m for the NHS’ bus in 2016? As the British media’s score in the Press Freedom Index continues to slide – from 20 in 2010 to 40 in 2018 – so does our trust in the information it provides. Add into the mix shadowy influencers like Cambridge Analytica, along with Facebook’s failure to moderate its content or protect your data, and the only valid conclusion is it is a broken system.
The word ‘democracy’ comes from ancient Greece and means: Demos = ‘people’ and Kratia = ‘power’. However, if you believe as many do, that ‘the people’ have never been more disenfranchised than they are today, then we must look for some system-change. With contentious issues around Brexit, in a country still divided over the question of Scottish independence and facing a climate catastrophe, we must seek alternatives – the most credible of which being proposed is Citizens’ Assemblies.
Imagine if instead of conducting closed-door negotiations with Brussels – using her own warped perception of what Britain had voted for in the Brexit referendum – Theresa May had empowered a representative group of 100 people, to decide what kind of deal Britain would pursue.
Using the process of sortition – similar to jury selection – to include Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish people, weighted to their size of population, we could have formed an assembly. It would have been a true people’s parliament.
Academics and experts from all sides would present their case, leading to an evidence-based outcome. To the contrary of Michael Gove’s slur that ‘people are sick of being told what to do by experts’, the Citizens’ Assembly would empower people, not make then feel dictated too.
Discussion workshops, literature, cultural study and deliberation would all aid the Citizens’ Assembly to come to a consensus of what kind of Brexit deal was best for Britain. We can surely be confident that whatever deal it came up with, it would have been a damn sight better than the twisted logic that delivered May’s government the biggest defeat in British parliamentary history.
If we’d had a Citizens Assembly to advise on Brexit, we could confidently say that Scotland’s voice was being heard through the process. Moreover, we could say we had a process that was representative, unlike the Scottish Parliament itself, which is 65% male, only 1.5% ethnic minority (when Scotland has 4% BAME population) and takes 20% of its MSPs from private schools (compared to 4% of the Scottish population overall). Sadly, the Scottish Parliament has become a posh, white, male dominated place just like Westminster.
As someone who was personally involved in taking Extinction Rebellion direct action at parliament on 25 January this year over climate change, along with other activists, the point was made that a Citizens’ Assembly would be able to deliberate climate change policy, free from the corruption of Scottish oil and gas lobbyists.
When commercial interests have no closed-door access to Citizens’ Assembly members, then we can be confident they will not take preference, above planet or people. Members are not reliant upon business donors for elections funds, nor are they disproportionally the people who mix in the same social circles as the wealthy.
Whilst a member may come into the process with less understanding of environmental issues as a politician might, a blank canvas can be a benefit. It has been shown with only one responsibility to focus upon their knowledge soon surpasses the generalist politician, who has responsibilities on many differing committees.
Will we face another independence referendum in Scotland? It was billed as a once in a generation event but also many feel there has been ‘material change’ to circumstances. What we do know is that many questions remain, that an unbiased Citizens’ Assembly could study and answer: What economic impact would independence likely have? What currency could Scotland use? Could Scotland remain in or re-join the EU?
In Ireland when a difficult question rears its head, they do not simply hold a referendum and risk social cohesion. To tackle major, divisive constitutional issues – like with gay marriage or abortion – they used Citizens’ Assemblies to deliberate first. The process of deliberation is where the seeds of national consensus are sowed, with constitutional ratification coming later and without ripping each other to shreds.
Constitutional issues still dominate the national discussion today and sadly prevent us from focussing on other issues that would improve people’s lives. Very little has been resolved in the past five years. So it is time for a new approach to politics and this – not my position on independence or Brexit – is what I will invest my energy in campaigning for. Power to people and everyone equal.
Ian Paterson is a blogger (see https://resfebertravelblog.com/) and activist from Glasgow.