What would Power to the People really look like? And are our politicians ready to let go?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 6th 2018

The people are continually cited and invoked everywhere in democracies. Not only that but this is the age of directly asking the population via referendums – such is the disdain mainstream politicians are held in.

None of this is surprising. Politicians or most politicians talk a strange, discombobulated, evasive, managerialist language. They show in nearly everything they say and do that they are not to be trusted. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson – he of supposed tarantula fame – cannot even answer a direct question from that pussycat of interviewers Richard Madeley on whether it was a wise choice of words to tell Russian leader Putin to ‘go away and shut up’.

Look at what happens when real life bursts into the political bubble. This is one way of seeing the phenomenon that is author and rapper Darren McGarvey on ‘BBC Question Time’ the other evening in Perth. Darren has become a rare voice who is not pigeonholed in modern day Scotland. In his book, ‘Poverty Safari’ he has written fearlessly about his own journey, weaknesses and mistakes, and importantly, learnt from them – embracing personal responsibility in a way which isn’t simply of the left or right.

On ‘BBC Question Time’ he was that unusual beast: someone talking in a very human way, showing doubt, humour, even a cheeky chap side – particularly in relation to his exchanges with David Dimbleby. More than this he drew from lived experience – of facing your own shortcomings, of making mistakes and having at critical points little support to draw upon. He talked with passion and insight on the damage that alcoholism and addiction can do, which few politicians have the courage or backstory to draw upon, although Labour MP Caroline Flint, on the same programme, also mentioned having had an alcoholic mother who died at the age of 45.

This brings us to what has just occurred in Ireland. Someone said about Scotland’s indyref that if you ask people an important question there is a good chance that they will respond with dignity and recognise their own individual and collective power. That was true in 2014 in Scotland – whatever side you were on – and it is true of Ireland in 2018.

The Irish referendum did not just emerge from nowhere. Prior to the vote, the Irish Constitutional Convention (set up in December 2012 in the aftermath of the banking crash) ran until March 2014. Comprising one hundred members, it had a chair, 33 politicians (29 from the Republic; four from the North) and 66 members of the public, drawn together to act and speak as a representative section of the public, and reflect on some of the biggest affairs of state.

It was the Convention which spawned the Irish Citizens’ Assembly which engaged in some of the most powerful and far-reaching discussions and foregrounded the maturity of the process which led up to the May 25th vote. It was the Assembly, made up of 99 randomly chosen citizens who, after listening and weighing up evidence from all sides and perspectives, came up with the proposal for legalising abortions up to twelve weeks, which became the central proposition of the referendum. This is what being modern citizens and the act of citizenship feels like. This is what being a modern country and democracy looks like.

The Irish are not on their own. All over the world new examples of constitutionalism are being made that are about more than the endgame and bright, shiny proclamations, and instead about the integrity of the process and people becoming active agents of change.

None of these are perfect, but as well as the Irish there were the Icelandic National Assemblies of 2009 and 2010 which attempted to crowdsource a new constitution. Made up of 1,500 people each, four-fifths (1,200) were chosen by a random process – with the rest representing various interest groups. This led to an official Constitutional Assembly (whose ideas were ultimately blocked by the political classes) but Icelandic democracy was changed as a result and enriched. Another is the Australian Constitutional Convention of which there have been several examples. The most recent in 1998 saw the creation of a body half-directly elected which considered whether the country should become a republic; this led to a referendum the following year when Australia voted to remain a constitutional monarchy.

To return home, Scottish discussions about constitutions, conventions and the people usually invoke the latter but seldom invite them centrestage. Instead there has been a long history of talking shops that can cite the idea of popular sovereignty as an abstract principle, but never actually implement and live it. This was true of the Scottish Convention of the 1940s, Scottish Constitutional Convention of late 1980s and 1990s, and the Scottish Independence Convention of today. Indeed, the latter group, which is an ad hoc convention, is now trying to establish another group – a cross-party campaigning group for an independence vote in a future campaign – when it hasn’t actually earned its spurs, reputation or place as a convention.

The world is changing all around us, including the meaning of democracy, authority, power and voice. This is an age of surprises and disruptions, some benign, some not so benign, and some clearly malevolent. Rather than politicians or alternative politicians citing the mythical power of ‘the people’ and claiming that they alone are the true interpreters of the popular will, here is a radical thought: why don’t we look at ways we can directly trust the people?

What would that entail? Shouldn’t we just leave it to politicians or after the experience of referendums in recent years in the UK, experts? Look at the mess which the Brexit vote has made, or the unsettled nature of Scotland’s 2014 indyref.

We can do something different. First, we have to understand that the time for talking shops is over. They once served a purpose, particularly in past times such as the 1940s, or when people felt that they had nowhere to turn – faced with Thatcherism in the 1980s. Second, closed or insider conversations which are based on controlling the agenda and scale of debate are not very helpful or likely to win the trust of the average voter who doesn’t live and breathe politics. Hence, a set of conversations defined by which modern day tribe you belong to, and where it is all about whether you are pro or anti-independence, has limited currency.

More importantly, we have to invest time, energy and resources in deep democracy. This sort of thing is happening in many in Scotland below the official radar and away from formal party politics. Examples include the pioneering work of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and their ‘Act as if you own the place’ events which have travelled the length and breadth of the country, from Oban and Dalmellington to Dumfries and Dundee; and some of the work with citizens’ juries which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has undertaken.

Critically, we have to start somewhere and that isn’t at the national or at the constitutional, but at the local. Despite all the national noise and comment, most people find more ways into caring about the place they live in, their immediate surroundings and future.

Building deep, living, deliberative democracy in Scotland would involve starting small – in one or more places and being rooted in it. Not scaling up; not being a pilot for a national exercise which would subsequently be ‘rolled out’. And in the process showing the potential of a thousand different Scotlands blooming and being that country of experiment, taking chances and allowing different visions to emerge.

This would entail thinking about democracy, our future and the choices we make in a very different way from the present. This isn’t about a country as a monoculture where what matters the most is whether your tribe comes out on top by vanquishing the opposing tribe, and it would not reduce power and legitimacy to be capturing and running the Scottish Parliament.

This would be a mosaic nation of many colours, hues, and perspectives. Sounds idealistic? You bet. But it is possible, if we dared to think of our country in different ways and didn’t define politics and power in such a limited manner. It would put us in the vanguard of a universal set of conversations and it would certainly be better than the present too predictable diet offered from the political mainstream. This is a Scotland of personal and collective responsibility and of actual, lived self-government. Might it be that too many of our politicians wouldn’t like it because instead of putting them centrestage, it would put the people? And who knows where that might end?