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Juliet Swann: Democracy Max - A Vision for a Good Scottish Democracy

The 2012 Hansard Audit of Political Engagement states: ‘Voters are disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged’. After countless scandals, crises and inquiries, is it any wonder that people think politics isn’t working for them. At the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) Scotland, we believe that the Scottish independence referendum debate is an opportunity to challenge our political system to change, to confound the low expectations voters have of politics, and to deliver on the high hopes they still hold for democracy in Scotland.

Democracy Max has been a citizen led inquiry into what makes a good Scottish democracy. In contrast to much of the current debate around Scotland’s constitutional future being led by political parties, Democracy Max sought to provide a non-partisan space where those with different views could debate and discuss ideas and where political rhetoric could be challenged and unpicked.

To begin, under the guidance of Oliver Escobar at Edinburgh University’s Public Policy Network (PPN) and with selection support from Ailsa Henderson at the Academy of Government, we invited people to attend a day long deliberative discussion about democracy and Scotland’s constitutional future.

Over 200 people applied, and these were selected based on age, gender, geographic location and occupation. We also asked for party allegiance and tried to profile the delegates along the lines of national party membership.

129 people were selected, and of these about two thirds were able to attend on the day. Admittedly self-selecting, and because we used the internet to recruit, we were not reaching out to those without access, nonetheless the delegates on the day were broadly representative of 21st century Scotland. There were gaps, especially from the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) community, and more disadvantaged groups as noted, which were kept in mind as we progressed with the inquiry.

The delegates at this event, which we labelled a ‘People’s Gathering’ were asked to consider ‘It’s 2020 and Scotland is admired as a leading international example of democracy and democratic participation. What three things about this future society please you most?’

Groups of 8 delegates each held facilitated conversations focusing in on their aspirations for the future of our democracy, and considering what might be preventing them from happening. Their thoughts, suggestions and ideas were published in the first document of the Democracy Max series: The Findings of the People’s Gathering.

These findings were then discussed in a series of roundtables involving academics, experts, practitioners, campaigners, citizens and other interested individuals. We also held public events and contacted all our People’s Gathering delegates at each stage of the process to ‘check back’.

The final publication – the Democracy Max Vision for a Good Scottish Democracy – represents the discussions held over this 13 month period, as well as additional research and case studies to provide context for the suggestions arrived at. Sometimes that research supports the instinctual feelings of our participants, in other cases it became evident that the impacts they were hoping for were not backed up by theory or practice. Far from invalidating their suggestions, we feel this requires us to go back and examine why they suggested the intervention in question, and how else might we solve the problem they were concerned with.

A case in point was that both the People’s Gathering and the roundtables felt a power of recall and / or term limits might serve to improve the behaviour and reputation of our elected politicians. The research indicates that these tools alone are insufficient to secure the sort of change our delegates aspired to. How to ensure politicians live up to the concept of virtuous leadership remains an unanswered question.

At the nub of Democracy Max is an urgent desire to return power to the people, to give effect to the Claim of Right and ensure participation in politics is accessible, rewarding and universal.  

Ideas to make that happen include citizens’ assemblies, both in the form of mini-publics at a local level where citizens debate and discuss decisions affecting their own towns and villages, and also perhaps a nationwide assembly to hold the Scottish Parliament to account.  

Understanding the power and influence of the media and corporate interests was also seen as vital, with transparency across the board coming through as a strong recommendation.  

And in thinking about what kind of structures we might need to make this happen and avoid corruption, it was acknowledged that clarifying the constitution would be helpful, as would some kind of standing review of Parliament and Government in order to provide adequate checks and balances in the system.  

As well as considering the motivations that lay behind some of the suggestions from that initial People’s Gathering, we also asked our roundtables to think about their feasibility regardless of the result of the referendum. Because improving our democracy is not a project that should be contingent on the referendum. The strength of feeling from all our participants has shown us that.

As I write this we have 383 days before the referendum. Democracy Max intentionally looked beyond the referendum. This long-term vision has been a vital aspect of the inquiry. Democracy Max is not just about the next 12 months; it’s not just about 18 September 2014. It’s about re-thinking Scotland’s democracy regardless of the result of the referendum.  

Excitingly, our participants really embraced this freedom to imagine the future of Scotland, and some of their suggestions present a real challenge to decision makers and those with power. Because inevitably power will have to be relocated if many of the suggestions are to be implemented, and giving up power once you hold it is not easy.

So what now? We are attracted to the idea, suggested by our participants, of a charter of democratic rights for Scotland. But we can’t draw it up alone. So we’re looking to hold a convention on modern Scottish democracy which will consider what might be included in such a charter – a charter that all our political representatives could be encouraged to sign up to.  

The Democracy Max vision for a good Scottish democracy is therefore not a conclusion, but rather an opportunity to join the conversation. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to seize that opportunity.

Juliet Swann is the Campaigns and Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society Scotland

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