‘Democracy,’ HL Mencken wrote, ‘is the theory that the common people know what they want — and deserve to get it good and hard.’
What we seem to want these days is more say in how the country is run and, boy, are we getting it in buckets. Not content with referendums on independence and EU membership, the losing side in each demands fresh plebiscites so the masses can give the correct answer this time.
Across the Irish Sea, discontent with the result of one of those referendums is boosting calls for another referendum, this time a border poll on unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Nicola Sturgeon has tossed citizens’ assemblies into the mix. Last week she fleshed out plans to consult a randomly-selected group of voters on Scotland’s constitutional future. The inspiration is Ireland, which set up citizens’ assemblies to advise on changes to the constitution permitting abortion and gay marriage. A group of Scots will be asked to draw up recommendations on how Scotland should proceed in light of Brexit.
The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are wise to the First Minister’s manoeuvres, with the Tories’ Adam Tomkins branding the project ‘nothing but a talking shop for independence’. Although citizens’ assemblies helped the Irish government navigate sensitive issues, even their celebrated experiment had its limitations. Politico reports that ‘just 61 members out of 99 saw out the full 18-month deliberations, with only 26 attending every meeting.’
If just one in four members of a Scottish constitutional talking shop show up for every gathering, we can guess which one in four it will be and even take a wild stab at how many Yes badges they’ll have pinned to their lapel.
Citizens’ assemblies are the latest act of violence inflicted on our constitution. The UK is a parliamentary democracy and while our American cousins have made a decent fist of popular sovereignty it is not for us. In our constitution, the Crown-in-Parliament is where rightful power resides. This is meant to ensure sound government and guarantee ordered liberty, sheltering us from the fits and whims of majority rule.
The distance our system creates between the governing class and the governed builds up hostility over time as the former comes to view the latter as ill-informed and reactionary and the latter decides the former is a condescending elite no longer in touch with the voters who put them there.
Eventually, the tension snaps and there is a correcting election, such as Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 or Tony Blair’s in 1997, which ushers in a new set of politicians and a refreshed relationship between voters and their government.
When we deviated from this tradition and embraced the referendum — a kissing cousin of the citizens’ assembly — the correction took the form of Brexit. Unlike a general election, where you can chuck the bums back out a few years later, Brexit represents an unprecedented upheaval that can’t be undone without embittering half the country. Instead of a safety valve, we have been left with a pressure cooker threatening to explode.
Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol is often quoted for its argument that parliamentarians owe us their judgment; that they are not mere delegates obediently carrying out the instructions of the largest or loudest group of their constituents.
Citizens’ assemblies appear to get around the problem by gathering the punters for reasoned discussions which elected members then consider, turning Burke’s complaint about a system in which ‘one set of men deliberate, and another decide’ on its head.
Look a little closer, though, and you can glimpse what’s really going on. Voters are invited to speak their minds — which they can already do — on an issue that is chosen by the politicians, rather than the issues most pressing to them. Their deliberations are given the patina of decision-making by holding votes but, in the end, it is the politicians who will choose.
Ireland’s exercise produced referendums on gay marriage and abortion but other recommendations, on climate change and the ageing population, languish still on the Oireachtas’s to-do list.
Less quoted are the words Burke closed his speech with: ‘A flatterer you do not wish for’. He understood that populist democracy didn’t serve the people, only their transient passions and the demagogues lurking ready to exploit them. MPs who promised to faithfully follow instructions from their electors would only ever do so selectively, and to give those electors the false impression that they were calling the shots.
Citizens’ assemblies facilitate a similar ruse, providing the politicians who set them up cover to do what they were always going to do anyway, with the option to ignore or fudge any proposal they disapprove of. They are a form of political flattery, democratic sweet talk whispered in the hope that those charmed won’t realise they are being had.
Decisions about Scotland’s constitutional future are taken in Parliament — the UK Parliament — but MPs being unwilling to play along, and Holyrood lacking the power to call another referendum itself, Nicola Sturgeon must find some way to placate her impatient party.
She hopes her citizens’ assembly will do that. She also hopes that superficially ceding power to the people will make her opponents look out of touch and elitist. It is an act of empty populism and would be called as much if Boris Johnson pledged to do it with the question of no-deal Brexit.
Sturgeon is, however, a part-time populist. She will put the constitution to a citizens’ assembly but she would not do the same with sentencing policy, smacking or gender self-identification. Nor tax hikes, school subject choice or the workplace parking levy. Citizens are only to be assembled when it is politically useful.
Citizens’ assemblies are very exciting for those excited by such things and keep the nation’s political scientists occupied but they are redundant in a system like ours. We already bring voters together to consult on the great debates of our times and ask them the correct way forward.
These are regular events subject to rigorous scrutiny and, though we may not always approve of the outcome, they are fair and free and give everyone, not just a select few, a chance to have their say. We call them elections.
Departing Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale exits Holyrood with a stark warning: that Jeremy Corbyn could hand the SNP Indyref2 in exchange for propping up a minority Labour government at Westminster.
It goes without saying that Corbyn cannot be trusted on the Union but whenever this scenario is touted journalists phone up the Labour press office to ask if the party would countenance such a deal.
This is the wrong way round. The question should be addressed to the SNP. Labour is an institutionally antisemitic party under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
It is led by a man who boasts of his ‘friends’ in Hamas, invited a racist hate preacher to tea on the Commons terrace and was himself arrested at a ‘solidarity’ demonstration outside the trial of the Brighton Bomber.
Is the SNP prepared to prop up such a government?
The scrutiny brought by power means Labour’s antisemitism and extremism problems will only get worse but they would have another party to split the blame.
Scottish Nationalists are outraged — what else is new? — that more cinemas aren’t screening the latest Robert the Bruce film.
Do they have any idea of the eye-watering cost of going to the pictures these days? If it’s bad acting, mythologised history and endless independence wars you’re after, admission to the Scottish Parliament is free.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.