A new campaign is under way not just for a second chamber for Holyrood, but a second chamber filled with ordinary people selected like a jury. Is this the first step to an era of political renewal that saves Western democracy? Writer at Large Neil Mackay investigates

PICTURE the scene: it is 2027 and Scotland is finally getting a second parliamentary chamber.

It is not some ermine-stuffed Caledonian version of the House of Lords, though – this is the “House of Citizens”: a second chamber comprised of ordinary members of the public selected to sit as representatives of the people for one year.

These “Citizen Representatives” have been selected using a nationwide jury-style system, and they will hold Holyrood’s feet to the fire

– scrutinising everything MSPs do, bringing the non-partisan common sense of ordinary people to policymaking, and drafting laws they think Scotland really needs.

As a result of the creation of Scotland’s House of Citizens, the campaign for the abolition of the House of Lords goes into overdrive. The devolved governments in Belfast and Cardiff set up their own second chambers along the same lines as Scotland, and the Lords too eventually becomes a House of Citizens.

Scotland and Britain are at the centre of a period of democratic renewal in the Western world as our parliaments become truly representative, and ordinary people, faced with the task of one day possibly sitting in power themselves, switch on to politics and smart debate like never before.

This scenario isn’t idle utopian speculation. A campaign for democratic change, centred around ordinary people getting directly involved in government, is about to bubble to the surface of public debate, and some of the smartest minds across the West are betting on its success.

Change of some sort is desperately needed. Democracy is creaking around the Western world – with little trust in politicians. Just this week, it emerged that in Scotland so few candidates have stood for the local elections that 18 councillors have already won their seats despite the vote being a month away.

How to do it

At the heart of this planned democratic renaissance lies the concept of “sortition democracy” – so let’s unpack that first. Ancient Athens ran its democracy along these lines.

Athenians felt political parties – with their donors and lobbyists – created oligarchies: the rule of the powerful few – whereas sortition created real democracy: the rule of the ordinary many.

Broadly, a sortition democracy system could work something like this: every member of the public who wants to put themselves forward to sit in a House of Citizens is entered into a national database and selected randomly, along the same lines as the jury system. A second selection stage balances demographics so there is a fair mix of rich and poor, rural and urban, young and old, making the pool representative of the nation. People are then blind-selected to sit for short fixed periods in a second chamber. Simple as that.

Happening already

THE Sortition Foundation think-tank is leading the campaign for the establishment of a House of Citizens in Scotland, and the replacement of the House of Lords. Brett Hennig, co-founder and co-director, says: “We want a House of Citizens that would be a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament following the jury model. It would build trust in political decision-making.”

Spend some time listening to Hennig and you quickly realise that we’re already living in the early stages of sortition democracy but don’t even know it, thanks to the rise of Citizens’ Assemblies around the Western world. Citizens’ Assemblies are basically an exercise in sortition democracy: with members of the public selected at random to make non-binding recommendations about policy to lawmakers.

The Sortition Foundation helped recruit the ordinary people who have sat on many of the UK’s Citizens’ Assemblies. It has selected representatives for roughly 100 assemblies around the Western world. “Our proposal,” says Hennig, “would be that ad hoc Citizens’ Assemblies, wonderful as they are, still don’t have any political teeth – so to give them political teeth, institute a House of Citizens in Scotland.”

The people want it

HERE are some facts that will surprise many: extensive polling shows that when the public has the idea of Citizen Representatives explained, the vast majority of us support the notion. Some 43 per cent of Scots back a House of Citizens as a second chamber at Holyrood, with only 17% opposed; 19% neither support nor oppose. When it comes to replacing the House of Lords through sortition, the figures are: support 48%, oppose 18%, neither for or against 22%. The inexorable rise of Citizens’ Assemblies also shows what way the wind is blowing. The OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, found that there have been nearly 600 Citizens’ Assemblies across the West in recent years. It says this “deliberative wave has been gaining momentum”.

The Constitution Unit at University College London last week posted its “Report Card” on Citizens’ Assemblies. Under the radar – as Citizens’ Assemblies are very badly reported by the media – there have been assemblies in Cambridge on air quality and congestion; Hate Crime in Waltham Forest; Health and Social Care in Camden. On and on the list goes, with local people selected to investigate big topics and report to policymakers. There have been about 50 Citizens’ Assemblies across Britain in recent years. Glasgow held a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change which made a series of recommendations to the city council.

Scotland had its own “Future of Scotland” Citizens’ Assembly – again, terribly reported. Among its many recommendations was this: “The Scottish Hovernment and Parliament should 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 [Citizens’ Assembly] was selected.”

Shadow Holyrood

HENNIG says that ordinary people selected to a Scottish House of Citizens would get paid – he suggests the same salary as an MSP, to show that their job is just as important as “the professional politician”. The House of Citizens should also have the same number of representatives as Holyrood , says Hennig, to “emphasise a parity of power”, and it could easily be set up along regional lines so the public “feels geographically represented”.

Citizen Representatives would get help with childcare, dedicated time off work, and sit for no more than a year in order to prevent any risk that they get sucked into the partisan world of party politics like MSPs. Hennig suggests every six months there should be a turnover of half the House of Citizens to keep the second chamber fresh.

Independent experts would be assigned to the House of Citizens – not just civil servants but professionals able to advise on particular topics from the worlds of academia, science, business, and the arts.

This would mirror the ongoing 99-member Irish Citizens’ Assembly which has investigated constitutional reform, abortion, and climate change. Ireland’s assembly broke the political deadlock on abortion, giving women the right to termination.

“A sortition chamber,” Hennig adds, “would hold elected politicians to account, but also introduce legislation.”

The big issues

HIS co-director James Robertson says that when it comes to sortition democracy, “it’s the Scottish public which has the greatest appetite”. A House of Citizens could take on topics “too hot to handle” for our politicians. Just look at the decades-long debate over decriminalisation of drugs and the right to die – all “moral” issues where politicians fear to tread.

Robertson says climate change is a perfect example of where a House of Citizens could make the changes which scare MSPs.

“To tackle the climate crisis, we’re going to have to transform the fabric of a lot of society. Politicians are too stuck in the electoral cycle – short-termism is hard-wired into the system.”

A House of Citizens would “allow the people to lead”. It would “set a direction which has the legitimacy of the people”.

That would tackle the problem of “so many people feeling such low trust in politicians … the way the political system is designed right now means that a lot of people feel very shut out of the decisions that affect their lives and the extent to which they can hold politicians to account. There’s a real sense of powerlessness … People are a consistently marginalised.”

Such frustration and alienation, he argues, partly explains votes like Brexit.

Democracy 2.0

“OUR democracy is Victorian,” Robertson says. “It’s not been upgraded in a long time, but the world around it has changed substantially.” How much more comfortable might we all feel if our fellow citizens, rather than politicians, agreed the hard decisions around issues like Covid, migration or climate change – the big topics we struggle to find consensus on?

Of course, “professional” politicians will do everything they can to prevent ordinary people getting into the system of government. Power is a closed shop, and those with power don’t want to give any way. So, on the rare occasions when sortition or Citizen Representatives are raised, there are sneers about ordinary people lacking the skills to govern.

Robertson has a ready answer. “At the end of the day, you’ve got a choice: who do you trust to do right by us? Politicians or people like us? Realistically they’re the two options.” Covid, he says, proved that people innately “trust” each other and “come together to help each other get through tough times”. He adds: “We trust our nurses, doctors, shopkeepers – we take our children to nursery and leave them with other people. We’re already very comfortable with a jury system coming to collective judgment about the conduct of another citizen. In a sense that’s all this is doing but with a much larger group of people around the conduct of politicians … Politicians cannot be allowed to just continue to mark their own homework – there has to be some accountability.”

Failed politics

A HOUSE of Citizens providing constant scrutiny of politicians would act as a powerful disincentive to scandals like partygate or MPs’ expenses. “This ‘one rule for them, one for us’ stuff can’t continue,” says Robertson. “It’s toxic to democracy. Having the public as a literal jury would change the nature of politics because you change your behaviour if you’re accountable and know someone is watching and there could be implications. There’s none of that now.”

Brett Hennig turns to the elitism of our political class. “They’re meant to be our representatives but look at the average age, gender balance, where they’re from, where they’re educated. It really isn’t a microcosm of society at all.”

Any moves to sortition and Citizen Representatives would inevitably face criticism that it’s “just another layer of government the taxpayer must subsidise”. With politicians pouring public funds down the drain every day, though, advocates say the additional scrutiny by ordinary people would save cash. It would also put a brake on politicians making false promises they never keep – a major factor in declining trust.

“One of the biggest wastes of taxpayers’ money right now,” says Robertson, “is the House of Lords – literally people living in castles claiming more in a day on expenses than people on Universal Credit get in a month, while we’re in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. So, if we’re talking about taxpayers’ money, let’s talk about that.”

Better citizens

THERE would be one sure ripple effect in society if we moved towards Citizen Representatives: an increase in political engagement.

Hennig tells of one woman “who thanked the organisers of a Citizens’ Assembly for randomly selecting her husband because now he was reading newspapers and watching the news and she was having much more interesting discussions in the evening”.

“We see that participants who go through [the Citizens’ Assembly] process come out really engaged and inspired – there’s a real transformation into engaged citizens and it’s very impressive,” he says.

His colleague Robertson adds: “There’s an appetite to take part in decision-making.

“There’s both a right and a responsibility to get involved in decisions that affect our lives.” Society slots most of us into the role of “worker and consumer”, he says. “What we’re interested in doing is placing emphasis on the role of citizen.”

Hennig points out that the Scottish Government is already committed to – in its own words – “promoting Citizens’ Assemblies in future”, so there is fertile ground here to push for the bigger step towards a House of Citizens.

Support for Citizens’ Assemblies – at least when it comes to political rhetoric – is much stronger at Holyrood than Westminster.

Overton window

BOTH Hennig and Robertson believe the “Overton window” – the measurement of what makes for acceptable political discussion at any one time – is shifting in favour of more direct citizen involvement in government.

Permanent Citizens’ Assemblies have sprung up in Paris, Newham in London, Melbourne in Australia, and the Eupen region of Belgium. Austria, Spain and Germany are all experimenting with more muscular forms of Citizens’ Assemblies. “The wave is building and building,” says Hennig. Amnesty International and other NGOs have just asked Ireland to set up a Citizens’ Assembly into drug reform.

Some, however, feel that the discussion around sortition democracy is still at too early a stage for the general public to really buy into in a way that might lead to a second Scottish chamber run as a House of Citizens. Are we looking at a situation similar to early feminism where campaigners like Mary Wollstonecraft – who wrote A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman in 1792 – were just way ahead of their time?

Might sortition have to wait a century to get real traction? Hennig dismisses that. He thinks that we will see sortition in government “within the next five years” rather than his lifetime. “Like the suffragettes in the 1900s, this is the political reform campaign of the 2000s. The suffragettes were remarkably successful in a remarkably short time and saw dramatic change within their lifetime.”

His colleague Robertson suggests change may come not with one big win but a series of gradual successes as the notion of citizen participation in government embeds in Western society. With crises from climate change and Ukraine to Covid and the cost of living, “there will be a tipping point at which people say ‘we can’t carry on like this’ as politicians continue not to deliver”.

In Poland, some politicians are now committing to implementing the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly if they come with a super-majority.

These are the kinds of steps entrenching the idea of greater citizen participation in democracy across the West. It’s inevitable that any future discussion around the constitution of Britain will now include debate about Citizen Representatives.

Transfer of power

SUPPORT isn’t confined to “left-liberals”, Robertson points out. “It’s across the political spectrum.” Young people favour sortition most. “Maybe because they know they’re screwed basically,” Robertson adds.

The big challenge is getting the idea out to people who haven’t heard of it - as once people understand sortition they mostly buy into it.

If the public was more familiar with Citizens’ Assemblies, moves by MPs or MSPs to disregard recommendations – like the Scottish call for a House of Citizens – would become politically dangerous. “It would be a really explicit example of politicians saying ‘no’ to public will,” Robertson adds.

Of course, it is politicians who will stand in the way of change. “Ultimately, what we’re asking them to do is give more power to the people, when the function of a political party is to capture the state.”

It is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas so what is needed is a groundswell of popular support to force the hand of politicians who will only shift if they fear for their careers.

“If Scotland adopted a House of Citizens and it worked – which I’m confident it would – this would be an incredible stepping stone to say ‘we’ve got to get rid of the House of Lords and replace it’,” says Hennig. The Sortition Foundation campaign will kick off soon.

By way of proving the power of citizen representatives, Hennig closes by pointing to what is now happening in Jersey. A Citizens’ Assembly there investigated assisted dying and it now looks as if the island parliament will approve legislation. A Scottish House of Citizens would make these “hot potato issues” more manageable.

“With so many different groups pulling in so many ways, and so many vested interests, political parties just get torn apart on these issues.” Citizen Representatives “open up the space for political change, if politicians are willing to listen and step up”.