Magnifying glass on politics

How Citizen Scrutiny can Change Politics

Robin McAlpine – February 3rd 2022

Were you expecting a bombshell report from Sue Gray? Were you really? Do you honestly think that’s how the governing classes operate?

From Bloody Sunday to the Iraq War, the state chooses its own scrutiny. The report into the first of these was riddled with misinformation and outright lies, the report into the second was a whitewash. Look at the 22 years it took to take serious action over Hillsborough, or the interminable delay in getting to conclusions over Grenfell.

There really is a ruling class (discrediting the idea is one of the main roles of being a member of the ruling class). This isn’t some conspiracy theory; they have neither an underground lair nor a secret handshake. They just hang out with each other professionally and socially and they appoint each other to their own governance structures.

Look at Scotland’s ‘quango class‘. It’s the same people over and over – and they’re not selected because they’re trouble-makers…

Everyone in and around this world knows the rules; you can only go so far and, if you’re caught, it was too far. At that point there must be ‘catharsis’ – but seldom consequence. Inquiries must provide enough of a slap on the wrist to let the public feel there has been some kind of ‘justice’, but seldom to the extent that it really risks anyone powerful losing their job.

(And, on the whole, no-one in the ruling classes ever does lose their job – except sacrificial politicians.)

If you can appoint your own jury (which is basically what happens) and your jury knows that one day it could be them in the dock, the incentive is clear. Cressida Dick knows perfectly well that the Metropolitan Police is badly exposed over Downing Street parties, never mind a string of other scandals.

So what’s the incentive here? Take a firm line with the Johnson administration and risk the possibility that it irks him enough to open an inquiry into corruption and misogyny in the force? Or turn a blind eye on the basis the favour will be returned?

There is an easy way to fix this – set a simple rule of ‘no one group must be allowed to govern itself or scrutinise itself’. Common Weal is working on a large governance project and the idea of enshrining a ‘no self-governance’ rule into the constitution of an independent Scotland is something we’re looking at.

But the model for fixing this problem is an easy one which we’ve been advocating for years. What we need is a Citizens’ Chamber of the Scottish Parliament, a second chamber made up of random members of the public selected to serve two years. (We’ll probably be waiting a very long time for serious reform of Westminster…)

They wouldn’t have any formal power, in that they couldn’t pass legislation or prevent it from passing. But they would have enormous informal power.

The Members of the Citizens’ Assembly would have the right to scrutinise anything going on in Scotland’s public or governmental sector (and would be required to scrutinise legislation and budgets). If they think something merits it they would create an inquiry groups supported by a professional team (including lawyers) which worked for them and not the civil service.

They could then call anyone they wanted to give evidence, with public employees and politicians compelled to attend. All of this would take place in public (unless there was a very good reason for sessions to be taken in private).

At the end of an inquiry they would be free to publish whatever findings they had drawn, with no-one able to pressure them to withdraw or amend their report (their own lawyers would provide advice during the inquiry if there were legally sensitive matters). Their reports could of course offer praise, but they could criticise at will, condemn what they believed should be condemned, offer views on what action (change of direction or remedial) they recommend – it would be up to them.

This would have a powerful effect; the ruling class could never again assume it could ‘get away with it’. It would know that there was a powerful body representing citizens looking over their shoulder and they would know that if they got anything wrong then (a) it would not be in their power to either give or withhold an inquiry and (b) they would not be allowed to choose the people to undertake that inquiry.

It is easy to see what would have happened in relation to Downing Street parties – no hesitation, no delay, no redacting pen, no word-mincing. The public would see 100 of their peers producing a conclusion and the power that would hold would terrify the ruling classes.

But it would be no different in Scotland; think of the powerful effect that could have resulted if a Citizens’ Assembly had looked at say the smoke detector proposals at an early stage and concluded that they were unworkable in the timescale proposed, long before they turned into a debacle.

So this isn’t just about punishing ‘politicians gone wrong’, it is about make policy better by providing a space outside of the tightly-controlled world of party politics.

This is an important point. Often when Common Weal proposes this idea, we are told that it is unaccountable because it is unelected. But we have an accountable, elected parliament, so how does a second one with the same cynical party-political constraints make things better?

If people are thinking about the idea of electing ‘independents’ to a second chamber, look at who stood for election when Blair’s ‘people’s peers’ idea briefly flirted with Hose of Lords reform. The list was, of course, dominated by the wealthy and the ruling classes.

We accept a jury trial as a legitimate way to exercise power in society, perhaps because that power is largely wielded over those without power themselves. Why are the public trusted to hold the power of guilt or innocence over other members of the public but not our ruling classes? Sadly, that question answers itself.

So if you’ve ever said that you’re sick of the cosiness or outright corruption of the way the country (whether Scotland or the UK) is governed then get behind the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly. It could prove to be the most revolutionary change in how we are governed in a hundred years.

7 thoughts on “How Citizen Scrutiny can Change Politics”

  1. I agree with the idea that ‘no one group must be allowed to govern itself or scrutinise itself’ and I like the idea of a second chamber made up of random members of the public selected to serve two years to scrutinise, make recommendations etc. I agree that any such citizens panel should be well resourced and supported by, e.g. their own lawyers who would provide advice during the inquiry. However, the legal profession in Scotland very much governs itself. The law society of Scotland is the representative body for solicitors and also regulates the legal profession by overseeing investigations into professional misconduct. This leads to a lack of accountability and a concerning lack of public protection. So, let’s sort out legal regulation, too.

  2. Ian Davidson

    Nemo index in causa sua! No one should be judge in own cause/interest; admin law lectures 40 years ago were not totally wasted! It is likely that the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries will be another addition to the list? “We will get fooled again”, oh yes!

  3. Mary MacCallum Sullivan

    The Scottish Citizens’ Assembly has already got behind the idea of a continuing ‘Citizens’ Assembly’, and I very much agree. All ‘citizens’ (not ‘subjects’, thank you very much) of iScotland should have the responsibility to participate in one way or another with the business of ‘government’ – at a range of levels, and in a range of possible ways. Oversight of public servants, be they elected or employed, is a vital duty.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Yes, it was one of the most valuable and radical things the Citizens’ Assembly proposed and it’s a terrible shame it was just rejected out of hand. People like this idea when they hear it but it’s hard to get momentum around it as none of the political parties are proposing it.


  4. Good idea in principle, in practice – who would decide who the ‘Citizens’ were in this Assembly. Individuals might have their own agenda and biases. Most importantly, endless enquiries, reports and recommendations go through their lengthy and costly process only to be completely ignored by the powers that be. This is the crux of the problem, accountability is simply not enough. Justice needs to be enforced and seen to be done. Some legal mechanism should be in place for elected members of parliament to be shamed, prosecuted and removed from office.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Sorry – I replied to this last week but it seemed to get lost… They’re literally selected at random but adjusted for balance (so you don’t end up with say 100 men). The balance we proposed was age, geography (not all from a city), gender and income, but not political affiliation (too hard to measure anyway and ripe for abuse). Now yes, this could mean that all 100 people selected at random could be Neo-nazis and that is partly why I don’t think they should have formal power. But this is how we select juries for criminal trials and how all the other Citizens Assembly-type initiatives are selected. And this is what is so encouraging about it – they have been thoroughly researched and the evidence is that when people are selected like this they rise to the occasion and act very seriously and responsibly indeed. Yes, they could be swept up with a conspiracy theory – but that happens to elected chambers all the time. It’s about balance and of the three options (elect them, appoint them, select them at random – or US Senate, House of Lords and our proposal) there is very good reason why we picked the latter…


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