State of the debate: The Citizens’ Debate

Published: 26 August 2014
Author: Nicola McEwen

As commentators pore over last night’s leaders’ debate, Professor Nicola McEwen reflects on the unprecedented level of citizen engagement in communities across Scotland.

As households around the country were tuned into the second leaders’ debate last night, Professor Michael Keating, Professor David Bell and I were speaking at a public meeting in rural Stirlingshire. Over a hundred people gave up their evening to come along and ask questions and share thoughts about the implications of the referendum vote for the economy, public services, defence, energy, the EU, the constitution and much more. There were no politicians in the room, only an interested and engaged audience – some Yes, some No, many still to decide. The atmosphere was calm. Nobody shouted. Collectively, we learned.

Events such as these are taking place up and down the country. The campaigns have themselves taken the debate into local communities, and meetings are being held by a host of different organisations – some partisan, some not. Citizens have taken seriously their responsibility to participate in this opportunity to determine the future of Scotland. Whatever the result, we are witnessing citizen engagement on a scale that I have never seen in Scotland – a genuine expression of popular sovereignty. It is a privilege to be a part of it.

It has often been said in the context of the referendum that voters are hungry for “facts” – so difficult in the context of the referendum when so much would be determined by the outcome of negotiations, and the behaviour of citizens, businesses and governments. But I think voters are hungry for impartial information and analysis. They are willing to accept that issues are rarely black and white. We have a duty as academics to help inform their decision - to provide factual information where possible, to explain why sometimes facts can’t be provided, and to set out the likely dynamics and competing pressures that would shape independence negotiations. As academics, we can share our knowledge of how institutions like the EU, NATO or the Bank of England work, how markets may react, the political choices that independence would open up, and the pressures that would constrain those choices. It was incredibly rewarding to be told by an audience member last night that he had learned more in the 90 minutes of our meeting than in the entire campaign.

That’s not to suggest that there isn’t a place for partisan debate. Of course there is. Both campaigns have a duty to set out their position and to mobilise support, and they are working tirelessly to do so. Shouting aside, last night’s leader’s debate raised important issues and gave the audience and viewers another opportunity to test those who will have a key role to play in carrying forward whichever decision the voters make on 18 September.

But there is another, more refreshing form of participative politics going on in Scotland today. We should celebrate it, and harness it so that citizens can continue to engage meaningfully in the democratic process in Scotland whichever constitutional path we choose.

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