Published on September 9, 2014

There’s no convention for the democratic step after a referendum

People & participation Scotland

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

turning the page, paszczak000

How politicians deal with the aftermath of the Scottish referendum is as important as the referendum itself.

With less than two weeks to go until the Scottish referendum, things are inevitably coming to the boil. It is unsurprising that my ears pricked up when it was reported over the weekend that the no campaign is poised to offer all Scottish citizens the opportunity to take part in a national convention. The purpose of the convention would be to decide what powers should be transferred in the event that independence is rejected.

If this were to happen it would be a remarkable opportunity for the people of Scotland to grapple with the challenges that this decision will offer. From Involve’s perspective it is a good thing. However, it is also nowhere near enough.

Firstly, a national convention after the referendum is far too late (and yes I know, it’s too late for me to say this as well, but we’ve another potential referendum looming so it is worth saying now).

It is late because referendums are very blunt tools; they can only give binary answers, yes or no. But it isn’t at all clear what question the Scottish people are answering. At face value they are obviously answering the question on the ballot paper. However, they aren’t answering any critically important questions relating to the economic and political implications of independence that need to be taken after the referendum. It is perfectly feasible that there are a significant number of people who end up voting no would vote yes depending on the answers to these questions, or visa versa.

This raises the question as to whether people are voting no because they want to remain part of the Union under any circumstances, or because the answers to the questions they were asking remain unclear?

Which brings me to the second problem with the idea of a national convention in the event of a no vote. Whatever the answer on the 18th September, Scotland’s relationship with the other countries in the Union will change. And these changes will have implications beyond Scotland.

So, while it is important that Scottish citizens have a say in the future of their country, they are not the only ones affected by any decisions that are made about what further powers to devolve. This means that a convention that involves only Scottish citizens will, at the very least, be perceived as unfair. And some will view it as profoundly anti-democratic.

It seems to me therefore that any citizens convention must offer the opportunity to everyone in the UK to take part. In addition, its scope must be about the political shape of the whole of the union and not just Scotland’s place within it.

Finally, and most importantly, a national convention is not enough. The traditional model of such events will see a big, set-piece physical event where those in power develop the agenda. It is highly likely that the model that those leading the no campaign have in their heads will end up giving the citizens taking part no opportunity to influence what is discussed and how.

Our work on NHS Citizen demonstrates that designing big public engagement processes behind closed doors risks creating a process that will cut some citizens out. One consequence of this is that it will reduce citizens’ trust in government rather than reset the relationship between citizens and leaders towards a more collaborative relationship.

My advice to the no campaign therefore is simple:

  • Be very clear about the purpose of the convention;
  • Agree who needs to be involved in the convention to make it a success;
  • Involve citizens in shaping the questions, agenda and process and not just in the convention itself; and
  • Provide lots of different avenues for citizens to be involved beyond the big set-piece convention.

I say my advice is simple. It is simple in outline, so simple it’s common sense. However, in our experience it is all too often forgotten and ignored. More importantly, getting it right involves early planning and difficult decisions to be taken up front. It requires much more than settling on a date and booking a large venue.

A referendum sets up certain types of expectations from citizens, but the vote at least provides some form of closure. A national convention involving citizens will lead to lots of expectations too. The risk is that a badly organised convention will won’t fulfil the expectations citizens have of it.

It’s late to be thinking about the issues I raise above, but not too late. Getting this right could provide a template for future decisions about big strategic questions facing our country, including the potential EU referendum in 2017. However, getting it wrong risks further undermining the already fragile trust between citizens and politicians. The implications of the vote for the UK are huge, whichever way it goes, but the implications of how leaders deal with the aftermath are potentially even larger.

Photo Credit: paszczak000

 

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