Democracy is not a vanity project

by | 27 Jan 2022

The review into the first of Scotland's Citizens' Assemblies is damning and this just reflects the damage that is being done to democracy by treating democratic innovation as little more than PR fluff

In today’s Herald Tom Gordon has saved me doing a review of the damning report into the Scottish Government’s first Citizens’ Assembly. And, as with almost every independent assessment of this Scottish Government, it really is damning.

Here are a few highlights. Because it was set up with a cack-handedly useless remit, meetings were “compressed and rushed” and so the working methodology had to be made up as they went along. Inevitably the result was that “the array of topics covered meant that none of them were addressed in any depth”.

Inevitably this “lack of clarity” resulted in “frustration” and “anger”. And of course if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have time to look at big issues in proper depth you get “a lot of recommendations, some very general, which may prove hard to transfer into policy”.

There’s lots more of this kind of thing and once you’ve been through it all you’ll discover that there is little more the Scottish Government could have done to make this whole affair pointless.

And everyone knows it – “There’s no need for anybody to pay any attention to what they’re saying”, “there’s no requirement for anyone in Parliament to pay the slightest attention”, “warm words… and then we carry on with business as usual”.

It is hard to express my, well, “frustration and anger” about all of this. Because despite virtually everything being rigged against them, the participants did a valiant job and produced a report which really does deserve to be taken seriously, even though the officials involved don’t seem to think so.

Of course ‘pay no attention’ is precisely what the Scottish Government did. All of this is nothing short of disgraceful. For those of us who have been advocating for this powerful democratic innovation for many years, this is clearly a betrayal. It’s like holding an election and then just ignoring the results.

How did this all happen? It’s really easy to understand – this whole initiative was a cynical vanity project from the beginning. It had three driving principles and all are entirely to do with the self interest of the First Minister.

This initiative was announced as part of a package of measures announced in Parliament 2019. The three-fold purpose of this announcement was simple; the First Minister had a party conference coming up, had over-promised on delivering a referendum (again) and needed some distraction to prevent criticism that she was doing nothing.

(It is worth noting that neither of the two other things she announced happened at all – a ‘constitutional convention’ and a reworking of the civil service’s case for independence.)

The cynicism around all of this stinks

The second purpose was petty; the idea of holding a Citizens’ Assembly to try and make a breakthrough in the constitutional debate had been proposed by the First Minister’s mortal enemy Joanna Cherry and was gaining a lot of support. No-one else is allowed to have that much limelight.

And of course the First Minister really likes to announce ‘progressive-sounding’ initiatives for reputation management purposes (a list including a Poverty Tsar, a Universal Basic Income trial, a four-day working week and a load of other things which had no meaningful result either).

Everything about this was wrong from the start. With all respect to Cherry’s original idea, a Citizens’ Assembly was never going to be a mechanism for moving towards resolution on the constitutional question. Citizens’ Assemblies can do many powerful things but they aren’t magical. They can’t solve complex, highly-contested and very broad political questions in a few weeks.

And that wasn’t even what ended up in the remit (it didn’t consider independence at all so bore little real relationship to the original announcement). So it ended up with a remit which was pure waffle and from there, it never stood a chance.

Failure is never, ever consequence free

The cynicism around all of this stinks. The fact that there’s been another since and the same thing happened (massive remit, brilliant commitment from participants, valuable final report, basically totally ignored) makes it worse.

(The Scottish Government’s response/dismissal of that report was dropped in the dead zone just before Christmas after I’d stopped for the year and so I’ve not yet had a chance to write up an analysis of how little from the report the Scottish Government took notice of.)

If you ignore democracy you devalue democracy. The Scottish Government has, in a couple of years and nearly a-million-and-a-half-pounds spent, managed to create an environment where people roll their eyes when you mention Citizens’ Assemblies.

The same has happened to climate change targets, poverty targets, public ownership (from Prestwick Airport to Ferguson Marine), public delivery (ferries, smoke detectors, sex surveys – the list too long), reform of local democracy (seven years and counting) and so much more.

Failure is never, ever consequence free. Treating Scotland’s democracy as if it is a vanity project will have consequences – for Scotland’s democracy.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This