A call for a national dialogue to build a consensus before a referendum

What we have just been through, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, was similar to a general election campaign. Each side laid out its position (as with an election manifesto) and argued their case before the electorate.

The ‘campaign’ model works – sort of – in terms of electing representatives to a parliament, within a party system. This is a form of democracy in which a set of people (a party) is elected to do the job of governing for a fixed period of time. After that period of time, the people have their chance to give their verdict.

This model is not ideal in terms of deciding on whether a country should become independent. For any individual voter (or orgamisation with a stake in the decision) there are a large number of inter-connected issues that may be relevant to them. In the 2014 referendum, these issues could only be debated within the context of the specific proposals (in effect a manifesto) laid out in the Scottish Government White Paper. In the end, the choice was to take it or leave it. The quality of the discussion that took place was also hugely constrained by the way that the British media operates – reducing complex issues to soundbites.

My suggestion is that it would be better to have a dialogue that leads to a consensus, which is then formally verified in a referendum. A national dialogue would need to continue until a point at which a set of agreed positions is arrived at, that are supported by a clear majority of the people. The referendum then becomes the legal confirmation of this consensus, which legitimises the government to declare independence and join the EU, UN, etc as a nation.

What would this process look like? It would be necessary to identify a set of questions that would need to be resolved, and initiate consultations and meetings on each of them. One of these questions would undoubtedly be ‘What currency will we use?’ Prior to the 2014 referendum, the Scottish government fiscal commission had clearly done a lot of work on this. But what then became clear that their arguments were not inclusive enough, and that further considerations needed to be taken into account. For example, during the referendum, various banks and businesses came out against the yes campaign position. But there was never any opportunity for them to explain their needs and preferences in detail, and for some kind of compromise or new position to be hammered out.

Another question that would be part of a national dialogue would be ‘How will health care be organised and funded?’ My guess would be that a consensus on this question would not be hard to achieve, but that the process of holding an open discussion on this topic would be interesting and worthwhile.

There are many other questions that would need to be explored within a genuine and inclusive national dialogue. The work of Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and others, around basic human ‘capabilities’ (the pre-requisites for a satisfying and productive life) offer a starting point for thinking about the areas that would need to be addressed.

Some further thoughts:
1. It would be a mistake to define a national dialogue as merely a precursor to a further independence referendum. If done properly, a national dialogue should connect up with existing policy and citizen forums, and should generate ideas that feed into the on-going, routine political and administrative process.
2. It would be best to wait until sufficient consensus has emerged, before holding a referendum. In our society, the act of voting seems to bring dialogue to a halt, and inhibits people’s capacity to listen to each other.
3. Voters would have a chance to learn about issues over a period of time. The opportunity to be involved in dialogue will help to deepen everyone’s understanding of issues.
4. The dialogue would be largely taken out of the arena of the BBC and mainstream press, which at the present time are corrupt and not fit for purpose. Obviously, a national dialogue would have a strong presence on the internet. However, it would be wonderful if there could be a freeview TV channel that just broadcast discussions between people, and video blogs, relating to the national dialogue. This would be a new kind of reality TV. Raw, immediate and unpredictable – but meaningful.
5. When the time comes to vote, the act of deciding takes on a different significance. If the national dialogue has been effective, then each person should be able to identify maybe three or four key questions that are particularly important to them, and then be able to work out their own balance sheet.
6. Who will make this happen? I suggest that the universities of Scotland should be charged with collective responsibility for organising and facilitating a national dialogue. Universities have good meeting facilities, which are accessible to the population as a whole. They have outstanding skills in relation to on-line broadcasting and hosting, and publishing. Universities also comprise a repository of scientific and cultural knowledge that we need in order to make good decisions. In the 2014 referendum, the universities were largely silenced, because of the fear of being seen to take sides. A national dialogue would allow this major national asset to play a lead role in the renewal of our society.

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