Scottish Citizens’ Assembly: Answering The Big Questions

“I see children coming to my school hungry because their families can’t afford to give them breakfast. That’s not acceptable. We have to address these things.”

THE SCOTTISH CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY was due to come together at the weekend for the fifth time. In light of the current situation, it has, of course, been cancelled. But Source was there at the last meeting to talk to those who signed up to take part in this exercise in deliberative democracy.

Citizens’ Assemblies have been used around the world, in a number of different ways. In a notable example, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly helped to break the political deadlock on repealing the eighth amendment to the country’s constitution, which allowed the government to legislate for abortion. ‘Climate Assembly UK: the pant to net zero’ is another example, currently ongoing, which has been stalled due to the coronavirus.

The Scottish Citizens’ Assembly (SCA) is unusual in the breadth of its scope. While most assemblies have focused on specific issues, the SCA was tasked with considering the future of Scotland more generally, no small ask for the group of just over 100 citizens who signed up. The questions they are addressing are:

  • What kind of country are we seeking to build?
  • How best can we overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit? 
  • What further work should be carried out to give us the information we need to make informed choices about the future of the country?

The members were chosen in order to be representative of the Scottish population – taking into account geography, age, gender ethnicity, but also attitudes towards Scottish independence, Brexit and voting preferences.

Speaking about her motivation for joining, Shirley Islam from Bowness, who works for the council in children and families, said “ When I heard about it, I thought that sounds a bit boring, but I’ve found it really interesting. I want to ask questions. I feel that we’re being heard and are going to make a difference. I want to challenge people and ask for direct answers.”

While Benedict Amamize, a teacher in Livingston, originally from Nigeria, said: “It means a lot to me to be involved. I’m very passionate about Scotland and I want to give back. Scotland has given so much to me, to my family, to my daughters. I see children coming to my school hungry because their families can’t afford to give them breakfast. That’s not acceptable. We have to address these things.”

When we attended (the fourth time the group had met), everyone spoke of how much the members had grown in confidence. They knew the format, what was expected of them and, due to the input of skilled facilitators, were unafraid to put their points across.

The topic of the weekend’s discussions was Scotland’s finances. As well as small, roundtable discussions, there were expert briefings on subjects including the fiscal deficit, GERS and taxation. During these briefings, members were able to hold up cards – a yellow card indicated the speaker was going too fast, a red card if they wanted the speaker to repeat or clarify a point. Each speech was followed by five minutes for reflection and notes.

Conversation guidelines for the discussions include: don’t grandstand; don’t judge others or make assumptions about their values; take risks in the conversations, even if it’s scary; be open to changing your mind; and we can agree to work well together even if we don’t agree.

The assembly has not been without its critics, who have called the £1.37 million bill ‘hard to justify’ and labelled it a ‘talking shop for independence’. On the latter point, the experience if the members we spoke to doesn’t correlate. They have a broad range of differing views, on all subjects including independence, feel far more engaged with the political process and even empowered by it. Whether it will be worth the expense will come down to the impact of project. After all six meetings have been completed, the SCA will put forward their recommendations, which will be debated by the Scottish Parliament.

Aiden, a healthcare assistant from Bonnybridge is keen that their efforts should be listened to: “I feel that if I’m putting my time in here, I expect to be heard… I’m not giving my time up for nothing. I really feel like this is something that can benefit the people of Scotland.”

If this is effective, Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, University College London, a member of the Stewarding Group for the SCA believes that this this is just the beginning: “ I hope that this citizens assembly is the first step in a new way of doing politics. We’ve seen for many years a disconnect between our representative and the people on the ground. We need to find a way to bridge that divide. And for me, citizens assemblies are among the best ways of doing that because people can get totally involved in some of the hardest and most important questions that face our countries.”