The Scottish Citizens Assembly recommends creating a House of Citizens

Back in January, the Scottish Citizens Assembly has concluded its work and published its report. One of the sections in the recommendations chapter (PDF) is called “How decisions are taken” and contains various proposals involving the use of allotted bodies for political decision making. One of those recommendations is to

set up a ‘house of citizens’ to scrutinise government proposals and give assent to parliamentary bills. Membership should be time-limited and representative of the population of Scotland, similar to the way this CA was selected.

Having a permanent allotted body with oversight powers over government and (it seems) binding veto power over legislation is, I believe, an unprecedented proposal from an official constitutional reform body. Of course, the Scottish CA itself was merely advisory, so the adoption of its recommendations by the elected government is very far from certain.

A discussion of the report was held in the Scottish parliament in February. In the discussion John Mason of the Scottish National Party responded to the proposal:

The start of the members’ introduction says:

“We, the people of Scotland, present this report” to Government and Parliament. That is a big statement, suggesting that the assembly is either more representative of, or more in touch with, the general population than elected MSPs are. We should take that kind of statement seriously. The assembly is a cross-section of society, but it is not elected, so are we questioning democracy if we follow that logic?

Some of the recommendations go down the same route. Recommendation 2 suggests that

“Government and Parliament should: … make decisions jointly with citizens”.

That raises a number of questions for me. Who are those citizens? Are they elected? If it meant more use of referenda, I would be open to that, but I am not sure that that is what it means.

Recommendation 3 suggests that there should be

“a ‘house of citizens’ to scrutinise government proposals and give assent to parliamentary bills.”

It goes to say:

“There should be an oversight body to ensure this.”

I accept that our system of democracy is not perfect and that—as other members have said—there is plenty of room for improvement. However, I think that, in general, this Parliament has engaged much more with ordinary citizens than Westminster has. For example, I was on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee during the passage of the bill that became the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. We spent a lot of time out and about and met a very wide range of people. We should absolutely listen more and engage more. However, we should be a little wary of introducing new bodies, which could actually undermine the democracy that most of us prize.

14 Responses

  1. It strikes me as a reasonable critique, in particular:

    That raises a number of questions for me. Who are those citizens?

    “Citizens” is one thing (elected politicians are also citizens), “We, the people of Scotland” an entirely different claim.

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  2. This is extremely heartening news. It suggests that citizens’ constitutional assemblies will produce similar recommendations, which in turn means that a strategy of campaigning for a citizens’ constitutional assembly to produce a proposed constitution to be ratified by plebiscite is a realistic route to some form of sortitional-democratic constitution. This strategy can be applied wherever the opportunity arises for a constitution to be written or rewritten, whether as part of an independence movement or a revolutionary overthrow of a corrupt government. The best next step, I would guess, would involve campaigning that portrays a citizens’ constitutional assembly+ratifying referendum as the only legitimate way to produce a new constitution, and delegitimises elected constitutional assemblies.

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  3. This seems another step towards eliminating any difference between the governed and the governing. Isn’t this what a democracy strives to be?

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  4. Keith,
    The devil is in the details. Would you endorse it if the Citizens’ House was thousand members who rotated frequently with quasi-mandatory service (or powerful inducements) to serve?

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  5. David: I’m sure it is in line with the striving for democracy but, as T

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  6. Sorry, let’s try again:

    I’m sure it is in line with the striving for democracy but, as Terry says, the devil is in the detail. I would certainly endorse the model he suggests, but the principal criterion for citizens’ houses seems to be just that they should be comprised of (unelected) “people”. Our current politicians are also people, citizens etc but they have the added value of having been chosen by their peers. For the representativity of an allotted oversight/veto chamber to match or exceed an elected chamber it would need to be constituted along the lines Terry suggests, and I don’t think there’s much chance of that.

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  7. > For the representativity of an allotted oversight/veto chamber to match or exceed an elected chamber

    You are comparing oranges to apples.

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  8. Yoram:> You are comparing oranges to apples

    Yes that’s right. Election is based on choice, whereas statistical representation is based on the LLN. The trouble is when people speak of representation (on this forum and elsewhere) as if it is a one-dimensional concept. It’s a shame Pitkin didn’t entitle her book The Concepts of Representation. Alex and I argue that both forms of representation are necessary to enable democracy, but the latter form must obey the principles of the LLN, as outlined by Terry.

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  9. Sorry Arturo, I mis-attributed your comment to Yoram.

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  10. Keith asserts that a body of elected members has “the added value of having been chosen by their peers.” This is clearly a DEFECT rather than a “value.” The principle of distinction ASSURES that this body will NOT be representative of the population (not “think, feel, reason, and act like them,” as John Adams wrote.) The barriers and filtering process for nomination and campaigning assures that an elected body will be dominated by elites. Voters only get to pick from among those on offer. Voters have almost no honest information about the choices, and due to rational ignorance and the effort required for monitoring their behavior, cannot meaningfully hold elected members to account In no way is this an “added value.”

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  11. Terry,

    Acting for someone else does not (in principle) require an identity between the representative and the represented, as Pitkin makes clear. The paucity of choice between elites can be remedied by the superminority principle, but that is a matter for the proposing assembly, not the citizens’ house, which needs to be organised along the lines of your earlier comment.

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  12. Terry, Oliver,

    Until you acknowledge that the value of a system of government must be judged by the people it affects based on the outcomes of the policy decisions produced by the system, rather than according to various arbitrary formal properties or according to interpretation by experts of vague platitudes, you will be vulnerable to the formalistic arguments endlessly regurgitated by Sutherland.

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  13. Yoram:> the value of a system of government must be judged by the people it affects based on the outcomes of the policy decisions produced by the system

    In an electoral system all citizens get to judge the outcomes indirectly, in a plebiscitary system directly. In an aleatory system the judgment is limited to the tiny group of citizens selected by lot. However the criteria outlined by Terry (a thousand members who rotated frequently with quasi-mandatory service) could enable democracy by proxy, as which citizens are chosen will make no difference to the outcome (on account of the LLN). This may well be a formal analysis, but there’s nothing vague, arbitrary or platitudinous about it — indeed its democratic credentials can be tested by controlled experiment.

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  14. By contrast the elevation of a few volunteer citizens into the mystical entity “we, the people of Scotland” is both vague and platitudinous.

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