I attended a consultation hosted by the Scottish Government as a member of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group along with other organisations from the Third Sector concerned with equalities issues. The energy and interest in the room was palpable: if nothing else, the referendum has ignited grassroots interests in politics, the political process, and how civic society can engage with it more effectively.
Certain key points from the consultation exercise and the Independence Bill were welcomes by the participants:
- The emphasis on the sovereignty of the *people* of Scotland, and that accountability will be to the people: not to the nation, Parliament or the monarchy. This marks a significant departure in values from the present UK constitution and Scotland’s role in the UK.
- That the process of negotiation towards an interim constitution in an independent Scotland would take place both before and after the referendum, to enable groups who do not wish to openly support either position to take part.
- That, if the referendum gives the Scottish Government the mandate to begin the process of implementing an interim constitution, that this will involve stakeholders from all sections of society and would cover equalities groups.
- That Equalities legislation would remain in place until a new, permanent constitution was enacted. Priority would be given to the signing of international treaties concerned with Equalities that have not so far been ratified or fully enacted by the UK government.
The following points were raised as concerns:
- That a No vote would be a missed opportunity to enshrine values of equality and fairness into a written constitution
- That progress on Equalities in Scotland would be hampered by Westminster in the event of a No vote
- That the process to both an interim and permanent constitution was left deliberately vague – so as to be as inclusive as possible – but this left voters uncertain as to *who* would be involved in drawing up the new constitution and laws that would govern an independent Scotland. The general consensus was that this should *not* be left to political parties and instead participative approaches (such as those used in Iceland) should be adopted. Whilst there was commitment to that in principle, the practicalities of it remained unclear.
- That these issues had not been made sufficiently clear to enable voters to make an informed decision in the referendum.
The following points were also raised:
- That the Scottish Government has an excellent record on consulting and engaging with a wide range of stakeholders. All the participants felt ‘heard’, even if their concerns were not always acted upon. This was in stark contrast to the Westminster government who, in the experiences of Third Sector organisations with a UK-wide remit, operated in conjunction with a much narrower, more elite group of networks, and did not enable full participation in the policy process by groups outside of this elite network.
- That this commitment to stakeholder participation would continue in the event of a No vote, and a move towards co-production was valued by the Scottish Government, but that its scope would be limited by the powers reserved at Westminster.
Participants from the Third Sector spoke enthusiastically about the opportunities for wider participation opened up by trusting relationships, well informed civil servants and governance structures that supported the serious commitment to equalities. However, they noted that attention to equalities issues was not yet sufficiently mainstreamed, and was unlikely to become so without some constitutional change enshrining these values.
So, although there are many uncertainties for equalities in Scotland in the event of a Yes AND No vote on September 18th, there was cautious optimism for the opportunities that could be opened up for a more participatory style of government in an independent Scotland. In particular, the change in identity and notions of sovereignty that Scots are proud of would become enshrined more effectively in the legislative framework.
However, as other bloggers have pointed out, equalities and fairness are not the only issues that are concerning Scots as they prepare to make up their minds, and they may not even be the most pressing.