The Citizens’ Assembly and its questionable function

The Citizens’ Assembly and its questionable function

by Jill Stephenson
article from Thursday 11, July, 2019

DENIED IN 2014 their sole and obsessive aim of separating Scotland from the rest of the UK, the SNP leadership has since come up with a variety of wheezes, ostensibly to gauge popular opinion on the constitutional issue but, as much as anything, to act as data-gathering channels and conduits for purveying nationalist propaganda and drumming up support for separatism. The problem for the SNP is not only that there is a strong body of opinion against leaving the UK, but that the nationalist manner of ‘wooing’ it, as the SNP put it in 2016, has been less than effective. Angus Robertson, a former SNP MP who has been found a berth in a new SNP polling and propaganda outfit called ‘Progress Scotland’, has been among those bemoaning the rough wooing by cybernats and by canvassers who try to bludgeon the undecided or opposed with a barrage of propaganda and insults.

Among the tactics tried by the SNP, we have had the ‘National Survey’, claimed to be ‘Scotland’s biggest ever political listening exercise’, in 2016. This was allegedly completed by upwards of 1.6 million people, but it transpired that some people had made multiple returns. The results of this exercise were never disclosed and its methods concerning breaches of data protection were criticised by the Information Commissioner’s Office. More can be learned about this at the excellent Mercinon Wordpress ‘No Thanks!’ blog by Roger White.

There were also three ‘national assemblies’ in 2018, which turned out to be carefully structured events, with group discussions led by SNP worthies, at which SNP members in closed session considered the findings of Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission Report. These meetings were to try to allay objections to and misgivings about Wilson’s conclusions, which were slightly more realistic than those in the now-discredited SNP White Paper of 2013, and therefore at odds with the optimistic expectations of nationalist supporters. The participants laboured assiduously and produced somewhat naïve ‘mind maps’.

In another initiative, in early 2019, Angus Robertson unveiled the new ‘Progress Scotland’ organisation, which ‘aims to help prepare the case for Scotland to progress towards independence, keeping pace with the views of the people who make their lives here’. Its main achievement to date has been to commission a poll by Survation that showed that only a small minority of Scots want another referendum on separatism any time soon. The tables with results were so unfavourable to the SNP’s cause that they were removed from online view very quickly after publication. Fortunately, before they disappeared from view, they were captured by the Red Robin website here. One of the tables showed that, while 40 per cent of the 2,000 respondents were ‘totally against’ Scottish independence, only 24 per cent ‘completely supported’ it. 

The SNP is therefore now trying another tactic. With renewed agitation for another separatist referendum, the latest SNP wheeze is the Citizens’ Assembly. This has something of a pedigree, with the first Citizens’ Assembly held in British Columbia in 2003 to consider the issue of electoral reform. In Ireland, a Citizens’ Assembly discussed, among other things, introducing same sex marriage and removing the constitutional ban on abortion, over a period in 2016-18. A government-appointed chairman presided over 99 representative but randomly selected members of the public. Following its recommendations, same sex marriage was introduced and the ban on abortion was lifted after a referendum in May 2018 gave the abolitionists 66 per cent of the vote. Further Citizens’ Assemblies have been held in places including The Netherlands and Canada.

The requirements for a Citizens’ Assembly are that a body of 50-200 individuals is formed by random selection but weighted to be representative of the relevant polity as a whole. They meet at weekends on a number of occasions, to learn, listen and deliberate. The Electoral Reform Society’s view is:

It is essential for a citizens’ assembly to be balanced in terms of the information presented to participants. Generally, the organisers will set up an advisory board comprising of [sic] independent experts and campaigners from both sides of the issue to vet the information given to the participants.

Stress is laid on ‘balance’ and ‘equal representation of views’. Members are seated in groups at tables, each with a facilitator who must remain neutral and not give opinions on the issues raised.

Compare and contrast this with the Citizens’ Assembly proposed by the SNP at its spring conference. Mike Russell, constitutional affairs minister, announced in emollient fashion that the aim was to bring people together to learn from each other, “including those with whom we might otherwise profoundly disagree”. Joanna Cherry, SNP MP, and a proponent of the initiative, however, sees it thus: “A Citizens’ Assembly… is a concrete way to achieve our goal which is to create a consensus around Scotland and a bigger majority for Yes than exists at the moment”. It was therefore no coincidence that Ms Sturgeon unveiled plans for a Citizens’ Assembly at the same time as she announced her intention to seek another separation referendum before 2021. Ms Cherry enlarged on her view:

Shaping the road ahead to independence is too important a task to just be led [sic] to politicians. What we need to do is bring the views of all Scots together, and create a shared vision for our future, and that’s what the Citizens’ Assembly is about.

Citizens’ Assemblies have been set up in other countries from Canada to Ireland at times of constitutional change, and they’ve advised on complicated, thorny and difficult issues, and have helped to find a consensus on issues in which people are divided.

It’s important to understand they are not an alternative to an independence referendum, nor are they an alternative to the democratically elected parliament – but a process which feeds into policymaking through the parliament, and so has a democratic underpinning.

Unsurprisingly, opposition MSPs expressed scepticism about the purpose and value of the Citizens’ Assembly, branding it a vehicle for promoting the nationalist cause. The Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats announced that they would take no part in it, in spite of pleas from the co-convener of the project, David Martin, a former Labour MEP, for people not to boycott it. But their misgivings seemed to be confirmed by Ms Cherry’s clarification that the purpose of the Assembly was “to move Scotland on… and to move us towards independence”. Indeed, David Martin himself has said that the Citizens’ Assembly should clarify opinion about Scotland’s future so that voters are better informed when (yes, when, not if) they are called upon to vote in another referendum.

In countries that have held Citizens’ Assemblies, the subjects under discussion have been discrete and often of a moral nature, such as those concerning same sex marriage and the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. The Scottish Citizens’ Assembly, by contrast, is, according to the Scottish government’s own website 

“one strand of the Scottish Government’s three pronged approach to chart a distinctive course for Scotland. The others are the establishment of a legal framework providing the option for a referendum and cross-party talks to identify areas of agreement on constitutional change.”

The ‘distinctive course’ means one different from that of the UK, with the aim of creating divergence which will ultimately lead to secession.

The Citizens’ Assembly’s task will be to discuss broad, open-ended questions:

1. What kind of a country do you want Scotland to be?

2. How can Scottish people overcome challenges (including Brexit)?

3. What further work is needed?

The aim of the new initiative is for the Citizens’ Assembly to arrive at proposals which it will then present to the Scottish Parliament. There can be little doubt that the desired answers to the three questions are ‘independence, independence, and independence’.

There are those who continue to maintain that the Citizens’ Assembly is not about promoting secession and would be independent of the Scottish government. The only known co-convener (so far), David Martin, is one. An academic on the panel, Dr Oliver Escobar, is another. He is concerned that expressions of opinion such as Ms Cherry’s, and the refusal of some political parties to support the idea, will compromise the legitimacy of the Citizens’ Assembly in people’s minds. Dr Escobar insists that the ‘ethos’ of the project is to be impartial and to promote trust. Yet the way in which the idea was introduced, and the championing of it by some who are committed to Scottish secession, will not allay suspicions that this is merely another SNP wheeze to push for separatism. Further, the restriction of the locations of the meetings of the Citizens’ Assembly to one in Edinburgh and five in Glasgow gives the impression that this is not a Scottish project but a lowland Scottish project – and with Glasgow the main venue, a nationalist one at that. I’m afraid Dr Escobar is going to find it difficult to persuade the majority of Scots of the neutrality and legitimacy of this exercise.

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