This is what democracy should always be like

The amount of interest, passion and debate sparked in Scotland by the independence referendum has been completely unprecedented. For those of us who believe that politics should be a part of everyone’s lives (and that voter disengagement threatens to undermine the future of our democracy) it has been wonderful to behold. In an ideal world, this is what democracy should always be like.

The central reason for this passion has been the clear sense of agency that voters have enjoyed in this referendum. The issue is seen to matter, and the vote is seen as a direct way of influencing the course of events. Unfortunately, that sense of agency is too easily lost when it comes to the rest of our politics. In a general election, many millions find their vote effectively does not count owing to the widespread and growing number of safe seats created by our unfair voting system. And even those who feel they have a genuine say often believe the choice on offer is not worthy of the name.

The real challenge, therefore – whether Scotland votes ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ today – is to build on the passion generated by the independence referendum and turn it into a sustainable model of political engagement, for all citizens.

That is far easier said than done. Most political issues do not split neatly into two opposing camps. Most are not fundamental issues of constitutional importance. Most, therefore, are not suitable to be put to a referendum. Even the outcome of the referendum, whether ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, requires difficult, complex negotiations and discussions that will not submit to a public plebiscite at every turn. How do you retain the energy of the independence referendum when politics returns to business as usual?

The answer can partly be found in the referendum campaign itself. In Scotland over the last two years the Electoral Reform Society has run a series of participatory events, asking Scottish people to sit with each other and discuss their vision of a good Scottish democracy. These events have found their reflection in the referendum campaign, with deliberative, participatory discussions taking place in assembly rooms, pubs and town halls all over Scotland. There is clearly an appetite for talking about – and ultimately coming to some decisions about – the future shape of the country.

What we need to do is maintain that appetite for discussion, and make sure it spreads beyond Scotland. The Scots have seized the opportunity to discuss what they want their country to be, but people in the rest of the United Kingdom have not had that chance. Political realists can appreciate why Westminster politicians are rushing to promise delivery of more powers to Scotland, with little regard for the fact that any such devolution would have a huge impact on the rest of the UK (and even less regard for the fact that it is precisely Westminster politics that voters cite as their top reason for voting ‘Yes’ in the first place). But whatever happens at the ballot box today, top-down edicts are not the way forward, neither for Scotland nor the rest of the UK.

There is another way. We need a UK-wide, citizen-led ‘constitutional convention’ along the lines of those that recently took place in Ireland (and, in some respects, Iceland). Such a process would bring everyone in the UK, and not just the Scots, into a discussion about our future constitutional settlement. It would build on the excitement generated by the referendum, and give legitimacy to the ultimate shape of our country. Decisions about where power lies should be led by citizens, and no one else. A constitutional convention is the mechanism that allows us to do just that.

There are many questions about how such an event would work – how to take a representative sample of people, what kind of scope the convention should have, and how to ensure its recommendations are acted upon. But we can draw on what we already know about other countries’ efforts in this area to set out a comprehensive and meaningful process. The most important thing is for all political parties to buy into the idea of a convention, so that its outcomes are taken seriously.

So perhaps, when the dust settles on this referendum, the parties should sit back and take stock no matter what the result. Before rushing to settle the terms of Scotland’s independence (in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote) or hurrying out timetables for devolution (if it is a ‘No’), perhaps they should instead commit to the simple idea that people around the UK should be consulted on the future of their country.

If the referendum has shown us anything, it is that people want to be asked.

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Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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Photo: Phyllis Buchanan

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