A second chamber rooted in deliberative democracy will improve Scotland’s politics

By Will Stringer

Imagine a future for Scotland’s democracy where the 99% of us who are usually locked out of political decision making are hardwired in. A future where there are multiple, local, national and international entry points for you to get involved, hear from experts, share your ideas and make change. This change isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s what’s required to meet the multiple complex and profound challenges that are facing us globally today. Challenges such as the climate crisis, technological change and forced migration. For too long, democracy has been eroded by vested interests with the money to keep power in the hands of the few. That needs to change. 

This is a future that Scotland has the opportunity to lead the way on, breaking new ground on how citizens are involved in decision making. 

So, what does that look like? 

Democratic innovations take multiple forms, from deliberative mini-publics through to participatory budgeting. In this article, we’ll be focusing on two related forms of deliberative democracy; one that you may be familiar with, citizens’ assemblies, and the second, a House of Citizen for Scotland.

Deliberative democracy

First, let’s get to grips with the jargon. Deliberative democracy is where people come together to hear from multiple points of view. People are enabled to discuss issues and to find common ground to produce outcomes e.g., proposals/recommendations. There are many ways of doing deliberative democracy, and methods and tools are being developed all the time. One of the most notable examples that we have are citizens’ assemblies.

Citizens’ assemblies

Broadly speaking, citizens’ assemblies bring together a representative bunch of people, selected by lottery, to decide how we should live together. In Scotland we have had two national assemblies, the Citizens’ Assembly on the future of Scotland and the Climate Assembly. In both cases, around 100 people representing the diversity of Scotland were brought together to hear from experts, discuss amongst themselves, and draw up recommendations for the Scottish parliament. Citizens’ assemblies are powerful for many reasons, one of the most notable is their ability to reduce the powerful vested interests that often exert undue influence on policy outcomes. This was recognised by the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland, where one of their key recommendations was to create a citizen-led second chamber in Scotland – a House of Citizens.

In Scotland we currently have a commitment from the SNP for an annualised citizens’ assembly, with a range of issues already identified as contenders for discussion over the coming years. This is a welcome step in the right direction, national citizens’ assemblies can break political deadlocks and allow citizens to listen to expertise and create solutions. If that’s the case you may be wondering why the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland called for a House of Citizens, and why is it of such value?

A House of Citizens

A House of Citizens would have four key characteristics: 

  1. Like a citizens’ assembly, members would represent the diversity from across Scotland. Hardwiring in the 99% of us usually locked out of political decision making
  1. The members would serve 1-2 year terms. This prevents creating ‘just another political elite’, and reduces the influence of lobbying. 
  1. The people who understand the challenges faced by ordinary people are ordinary people. That’s why ordinary citizens as members of the House of Citizens would decide on topics for citizens’ assemblies across the country; this decentralises power and ensures local democracy is a cornerstone of the House of Citizens.
  1. Members would select legislation to be scrutinised, so as to improve the quality of legislation that comes from Scottish parliament. Politicians can’t continue to mark their own homework, we need to improve the decisions that Scottish parliament takes that affects all of our lives.

Beyond the value already described, a House of Citizens hardwires deliberation into Scotland’s parliament and strengthens the civic muscle of Scotland. Imagine being able to go to your local pub, and be served by someone who had experience in the House of Citizens?

Of course, the House of Citizens doesn’t act in isolation – and reform of democracy needs to happen at a local, national and international level if we are to address the democratic crisis. But a House of Citizens is something that can begin to be put into action now, shaping the future of Scotland’s democracy as a global leader in citizen participation.

The full proposals for a Scottish House of Citizens – by the Sortition Foundation, Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Common Weal and RSA – can be read here.

About the author

This is a guest post by Will Stringer, Campaign Coordinator for the Sortition Foundation, which advocates for deliberative democracy. Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Upgrade Holyrood.

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