At the end of this week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will outline plans for Scotland’s three-tier system for restrictions on covid-19. Then when MSPs return to the Scottish Parliament at the start of next week, the proposals will be scrutinised, debated and voted on. It’s the first time in quite awhile that there will be a proper parliamentary process in advance of the Scottish Government imposing new measures. That’s a good thing – but is it enough? Should we be thinking about opening up the decision-making process much wider in Scotland?
There has been a growing popularity in citizens’ assemblies in recent years, as a deliberative way of bringing people together to discuss and come to solutions on complex issues which require a degree of consensus to be built within the society. The Scottish Government set-up its own Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, which has returned to its now virtual deliberations following a pandemic-induced break. But its remit is extremely broad: it’s been posed the question “what kind of country are we seeking to build?”. That’s okay as far as it goes, but if new forms of participative and deliberative democracy are going to have a genuine place over the long-term, they have to be able to tackle the pressing challenges weighing on the minds of citizens now.
Covid-19 restrictions is what everyone in Scotland is debating, and increasingly I get the impression that if you speak to five different people you get eight different opinions. Tensions are growing, not only between different interest groups but also between people who genuinely just want what’s best for the society, and now have widely different ideas of what that means. Part of the problem is people getting fed up of having restrictions imposed on them from on high. Bringing a cross section of society together supported by expertise to explore what covid-19 restrictions we need – it’s worth a try, isn’t it?
What sparked this thought was reading the latest proposals of Basque pro-independence left party EH Bildu about what to do about the spread of covid-19. The Basque Autonomous Community and Navarre (the two administrative regions which make up the southern Basque Country) have suffered worst than most from the pandemic, with around 2,600 officially registered deaths in a population of less than three million people.
EH Bildu is the main opposition in the Basque Autonomous Community, and it’s general co-ordinator Arnaldo Otegi has called for “round-tables” to be in the BAC and Navarre so that all aspects of society can come together and workout solutions, as the number of cases continues to rise. He said that the governments cannot tackle the problem “alone” even with an “absolute majority”, and that a new “method” was needed based on “freeing up all the energies of this country” to “define a strategy” and “reach major agreements”. This was an “opportunity” to “make politics differently”, he argued.
Now, one could dismiss this as simple politicking from an opposition party, but actually in some ways it is easier to simply attack the government and say ‘this failure is all on you’. By trying to democratise the process, the opposition takes the risk of some degree of joint-responsibility.
It appears to be a uniform trend around the world that when the going has got tough with the pandemic, we have passively fallen back on central authority. But in most of the world, central authority has failed to deliver solutions, usually undergoing a juggling act which neither protected our health nor the economy. A lack of citizen compliance has often been blamed as the reason why restrictions have failed to contain the spread of covid-19, but perhaps we are thinking about it the wrong way round. Instead of government as the active agent and citizens as the compliant body, it should be citizens as the active agent demanding government compliance. Maybe we the people are the solution, not the problem.
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