This article explores how peoples and citizens assemblies could deepen and replace our current captured democracies. It uses Scotland as its example, and explores how such assemblies might – for example – address the deep social and emotional divisions over Scottish independence’.
Independence is inevitable because it is the demographic direction of travel. Young people in Scotland are overwhelmingly pro-independence, and the direction of travel is clear. The “gradual tilt to Yes is explained by a combination of persuasion and generational replacement” and “the risk for the anti-independence camp is their last chance to win young hearts and minds has already passed them by” (Fraser McMillan, Scottish Election Survey, 15th January 2023).
Independence is impossible, because a media controlled by billionaires decides the shape of the UK government AND opposition. Dissent is increasingly cracked down on. The police close down protest by women against police violence, and by so many against climate inaction. The government tries to – in effect – make striking illegal. Women, workers, nurses and future generations are ignored, and all the while the City of London money launders the destruction of the planet.
The more those in power in the UK insist you should “know your place”, the more people in Scotland decide the UK is not their place. A relationship that was seen to be based on consent is gradually seen to be based on coercion – with no possible pathway to leaving the relationship, or righting the relationship.
So, is ‘Impossible yet inevitable’ the path we are negotiating in relation to a UK system that seems designed to maintain inequality in so many ways?
If so, the constitutional question for people in Scotland is not unconnected to enabling other parts of the UK, England included, to gain their independence from a Britain that is increasingly in the Empire-mould of sugar coated bitter inequality.
Does the success of those who want independence now depend on an ingenuity that bypasses the divide and rule binary trap?
Does it depend on making cause with a wider and broader push for the rights of all, including those in the south, and the global south? Does it involve working towards a moment of challenge to established power – but in a much wider context, and aligned with the deeper moral imperative coming from devastating inequality and the destruction of the planet’s ability to sustain us?
If so, then the constitutional question is not unconnected to the survival of our species.
Can our humanity survive and thrive by ending an inhumane system that is destroying the conditions for human life on earth, and can resolving the constitutional question be part of this?
For those in the middle who decide the outcome of binary votes, the constitutional question is not about British or Scottish identity. In 2014 – when it looked like Labour would win the 2015 UK election and Brexit was still a far-right fantasy – they decided to give their far larger partner one last chance.
For such people, the question of ‘independence or the union’ is strongly linked to a desire to ensure a civil society: a society where we know that our well-being depends on the well-being of others, not on exploiting others. A civil society can’t happen simply by changing the flag, the border or the name of a sovereign country. A country is not sovereign if it is still run by a toxic neoliberal establishment. That’s as true for an ‘England’ that sees itself as having become independent of the EU, as it is for Scotland.
Meanwhile the ‘radical’ and ‘mainstream’ are set against each other by those who divide in order to rule. Is it ‘extremist’ to be calling for a sane political system that can enable human survival?
As the UN Secretary General said in response to the third IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report in April 2022, it is not those campaigning to stop the fossil fuel industry who are the ‘dangerous radicals’.
Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, said:
“Climate scientists warn that we are already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate impacts. But high-emitting governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye; they are adding fuel to the flames. They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security, and greater price stability. . .
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
Go here for the Secretary General’s video message at the launch of the third IPCC Report.
An establishment captured by the fossil fuel industry, making net zero promises while continuing maximum extraction, is acting in a dangerously extreme, uncaring and irrational way.
A pathway out of political powerlessness?
So how do we create a groundswell that can shrug off a toxic colonial economic domination system that is destroying the possibility of human life, and related life forms, on earth?
Could gaining independence from toxic governance empower us to create a new, inclusive, fair democracy, and enable us to care for the web of life we are part of?
These questions will only be taken seriously when we face the desperate reality that we are in the last moments when we may still have a chance to stop being swept away by environmental catastrophe.
Such questions point to the need for genuine constitution making at all levels – enabling fundamental, meaningful change at community, bioregion, country, continent and global levels – to reclaim our future.
It needs not just a different constitutional outcome but a different constitutional process. One that brings us together, instead of pitting us against one another and the only place that matters – the land and relationships we rely on. Not just a change of governance, but a change in our fundamental orientation from defensive control to collaborative care
The pathway to such a constitution and governance system can’t begin by focusing on making a referendum or election binary happen. Instead we could enable the fundamental change we need through deliberative assemblies where people consider the full 3D picture, not warped 2D repetitions, and so can chart a majority pathway from this current radically ‘exterminist’ system (exterminating species day after day) to one that cares about other peoples, life forms and generations.
A national citizen-led deliberative assembly
The members of such an assembly might decide that independence is the route to take – but if they did so, it would be in full awareness of the power of the neoliberal UK state that would not be likely to act rationally in relation to a newly independent Scotland. If the UK state acted rationally then a growing majority would not be wanting to leave it. The neoliberal UK state would be likely to act as punitively as the EU did in relation to Greece when Greece sought to care for its citizens rather than its bankers, or as Gordon Brown did in putting Iceland on a list of terrorist states during the banking crisis.
The members of such an assembly might decide that staying in the UK is the route to take – but if they did it would be in full awareness of the magnitude of the task facing us in trying to reclaim a civil society from a state that has such a long history of warring against peoples, and such a short (few-decades-long) post-WW2 history of acting rationally in a way that tries to learn from mistakes rather than double down to repeat them.
A citizens assembly convened by citizens, rather than shaped by those with a vested interest in the Westminster or Holyrood status quo, could be the national decision-making space we need to convene.
It can’t be something done in a hurry or tokenistically or under the control of a faction with a vested interest in a particular way of achieving the shared purpose of ensuring a society that cares for all.
It needs to arise from assemblies in communities where we collectively develop the deliberative muscles, skills and sensitivities needed to be able to create a real democracy from the ground up. Such community assemblies, or broader assemblies focused on particular themes, are a form of Peoples Assembly.
A Peoples Assembly is the voluntary coming together of whoever is concerned about an issue or a place.
In contrast, a Citizens Assembly is a representative sample of ordinary members of a population (whether community, city or country) normally selected at random. To be effective, it needs to arise from citizens, not be bestowed (and captured) by government in the way that the Scottish Climate Assembly ended up being. It needs to be well-facilitated, normally through a three-stage process of listening to evidence like a jury, considering and deliberating on the issue, and then making collective decisions based on that evidence and deliberation.
If you are interested in doing the groundwork to create such decision-making processes in your own community, get in touch at www.grassroots2global.org
For us, ‘citizenship’ is not something the State has the right to bestow or withhold. It is something all who live here possess. We all have the right and responsibility to decide the future of the community, the bioregion and the country where we live.
So many of us have given up hope that our voice can be heard, or that what we have to offer is valued.
Many of us live with a kind of beaten-down apathy; a simmering fury at what is happening to us, our families and the world, alongside a despair that there’s anything we can do about it except keep our heads down.
An experience of repeated betrayal has led to a disempowered cynicism with an underlying lack of faith in ourselves, and a lack of trust in one another and humanity in general, that comes down hard on even the smallest flicker of hope that there could be a meaningfully different way to be.
The current system batters away at our imaginations so that – as has long been noted – it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The current system is manifestly failing humanity. Politics-as-usual has failed us. We have to stop outsourcing politics to politicians and to a political system based on command and control, separation and scarcity.
This is new territory, and we won’t get there overnight. We will need to get skillful at the difficult, messy and creative business of deciding together how we live together. We need to build a deeper democracy to deal effectively with the root causes – not only of the climate and ecological emergency but also of the many other social and economic emergencies folk in Scotland face every day.
We’ve begun working with groups and individuals across Scotland to develop this. We’ve begun small but we hope to catalyse and support a range of Peoples Assemblies at different levels, working towards a national Peoples Assembly that could put its proposals to a citizen-led Citizens Assembly. The idea is that such an assembly does not come up with recommendations for government to act on. Instead it could come up with a proposed pathway for replacing our current governance system. It could then – for example, if it decided to – propose this as a manifesto for government-by-assembly in the 2026 Scottish elections.
We don’t just need a change of policies and politicians. We need to change the structure of politics itself.
We don’t just need a different constitutional outcome. We need a different constitution-making process.
We don’t need politicians. We need juries of ordinary citizens – well-informed and well-facilitated – making the decisions.
We can complain and demand of existing power holders and get precisely nowhere, reassuring ourselves that we are powerless. Or we can take the risk of starting from a fundamentally different assumption.
This system tries to persuade us that human nature is the problem.
The real problem is an inhumane system, and our instilled belief in it, and obedience to it.
We need to dive deeper, heal the hurts of colonialism and remake ourselves and our world using healthy collective decision-making processes that bring out the best in us, rather than the worst.
Ciaran Martin’s 2030s scenario is a useful imaginative exercise, even if he seems to fall into the old trap of thinking Labour will win the next UK election.
Labour may be way ahead in the UK polls (by appealing to the right in England, and so alienating the mainstream in Scotland) but a recent YouGov poll put Rishi Sunak’s popularity in the UK at only a few percentage points behind Keir Starmer’s (26% to 31%).
That – combined with the mass media support for the Tories, and Starmer’s inability to mobilise a mass movement because he is too busy taking the side of the bullies rather than those reluctantly having to strike – suggests Labour may well lose the next UK election, or if it wins it will continue business as usual.
Ciaran Martin outlines his possible future trajectory like this:
“Consider this outline of the future.
“There’s a change of UK Government in 2024.
“A Labour or Labour-led Government introduces constitutional reforms designed to strengthen devolution.
“A Westminster Conservative opposition, hardening against devolution out of office, as it did over Europe after its 1997 defeat, opposes those reforms and pledges to reverse them.
“The economic inheritance of the new Government proves too tricky: it is short-lived and in the late 2020s or early 2030s a form of Conservatism that is much more anti-devolution than before comes into power.
“The argument of 2024 in Scotland (and possibly Wales) that you don’t need independence to protect you from a Conservative Government you didn’t vote for falls away, along with the new constitutional reforms.
“In the meantime, let’s assume that because of these political difficulties there has been no significant movement in national sentiment in either Scotland or Northern Ireland.
“But demographics are taking their course, so support for leaving the UK is rising. And in Scotland, it’s now not far off the point where a ‘generation’ has actually passed since 2014.”