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August 1, 2012

The people want a say

More evidence of the growing appetite from citizens to engage in the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future in ways which go far beyond the narrow confines of the Yes/No campaigns. The Electoral Reform Society recently entered the fray with their Democracy Max programme, kicking off last month with the People’s Gathering – an event with real energy and enthusiasm. Politicians take note – it’s still early days, but this has the makings of a campaign that you may struggle to control.


A blog by Malcolm Harvey, Electoral Reform Society Scotland – Scots are ready for real, meaningful constitutional debate

Since the launch of Yes Scotland and Better Together, the campaigns in support of independence and the Union respectively, the constitutional debate has entered a phase of relative quiet. While partisans and activists continue to fight the campaigns on the doorsteps and on street stalls (and, more vociferously  through social media outlets,) the campaigns – at least in the national media – appear to be on a summer hiatus.  Which has meant that writing about the campaigns themselves has been somewhat limited. 

The absence of partisan debate has allowed the non-aligned an opportunity to engage with the constitutional debate – an opportunity which was grasped eagerly at an event I attended last month.

And though I am currently an intern at the Society which organised the event, I don’t think I need any kind of bias to suggest that the event was a resounding success. Dubbed a “People’s Gathering”, the event brought together people from all over Scotland – a sample of the population, albeit opt-in, representative of age, gender, home town and political affiliation for a dialogic discussion in two parts. 

The morning session asked delegates to consider how a Scottish democracy might look in 2030 and discuss what particular aspects of this utopian ideal they liked the most.   The afternoon session subsequently saw delegates consider the obstacles which would need to be overcome to achieve such ideals.

Professor Alice Brown opened the day by reminding delegates of the ideals upon which the Scottish Parliament was based on its (re)opening in 1999: wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, words inscribed upon the Parliament’s Mace.  And while that was the starting point for discussions of how the infant parliament should conduct itself, there were no such constraints on the delegates at the People’s Gathering.

Different ideas for Scotland’s future ranged from increased engagement in the political process through a better informed electorate, social justice and a better informed policy process, to praise for the principle of subsidiarity, an end to money being able to buy political influence, and an open process to consider a written constitution for Scotland.  From a personal perspective, as a note-taker for one of the groups, I was taken by the knowledge and experience which the delegates brought to the day, and the vibrancy with which the discussions flowed.

While the People’s Gathering was but the beginning of the process for the Electoral Reform Society’s “Democracy Max” programme (which continues later this year with several round table events), the early signs are that it is doing something which the two sides of the referendum campaign would like to do: engage the Scottish electorate in discussions about Scotland’s future.

That delegates from all over Scotland were happy to voluntarily give up their time on a summer Saturday to come to Edinburgh and discuss ways to improve Scotland’s democracy suggests there is an appetite within the Scottish electorate for this kind of debate.  Herein, I think, lies the lesson for politicians and political commentators alike.

The Scottish public are happy – eager, even – to engage in political discussions, to consider how we might improve democracy, our political institutions and our society. But the discussion needs to be meaningful, the consultation two-sided and the outcomes identifiable. If we start to see this kind of engagement from Yes Scotland and Better Together, there’s hope for us all yet.