Nicola Sturgeon: The Involving First Minister?

Nicola Sturgeon: The Involving First Minister?
Democratic Society, by Alistair Stoddart


One week ago Alex Salmond passed the reigns over to Nicola Sturgeon for her to become First Minister of Scotland. Yet, it was clear from the outset that her leadership style was not going to simply mirror that of her predecessor.  In fact, her welcome decision to appoint a gender balanced cabinet may well have already stamped her own individual style on the role.


However, the main shift in focus that has most interested me is her apparent enthusiasm for Participatory Democracy. As I have said previously, the independence referendum has created a democratic energy that could be harnessed to create a more involving democracy. This energy was clearly on display in Glasgow last week where Sturgeon triumphantly announced that “Democracy Rocks.” But, her fervour for a more involving democracy appears to go beyond announcing a trivial two word phrase in an arena of adoring supporters.


When Sturgeon announced her candidacy to be leader of the SNP, (via a speech made freely available on Evernote), she recognised this aforementioned democratic energy by seeing Scotland as a “country that is, on both sides, engaged, inspired and empowered by the referendum experience.” She then pledged to “find new ways to harness the democratic energy” and lead a Scottish Government that is “open and participative” and “full, active, genuine and constructive participants… in discussions across Scotland.” She also made clear that this involvement would “not just (be) in our big constitutional debates, but in our day to day decision-making as a nation…” bringing decisions “closer and handing them back” to the people of Scotland.


The First Minister has continued to be put forward these participative ideas since she has taken up residence in Bute House. Before announcing her government’s legislative programme she repeated that she wanted to:


“Put people at the heart of our plans… That means, where we can, we will listen to the people and take decisions after hearing what they have to say…We want this to be the most open and accessible government that Scotland has ever had… We want everyone’s help to make Scotland a better country – and we want to hear your ideas.”


This was indeed reflected in the Programme for Government, with page 78 being devoted to participatory democracy, noting that “people’s involvement in democracy in Scotland should not stop once they have cast a vote” and highlighting a desire to:


“…draw more people more deeply into the way that the decisions that matter to them are taken. We want Scotland to be an open and truly engaging country, where the creativity and wisdom of all its people help to shape our future. We will work collaboratively with COSLA, a range of existing experts in participative democracy, the wider public sector and communities to identify the best ways to achieve this.”


This process is already underway with: the next stage of Collaborative Government in Scotland process due to be outlined; growing interest in reports about democratic reform from the Commission to Strengthen Local Democracy in Scotland and ERS Scotland; and members of the Scottish Democratic Sector coming together to find ways to help achieve a the mutual goal of a truly participative Scottish democracy.


However, while the First Minister’s words are very encouraging it must be stressed that it takes a lot of time, effort, experimentation and learning  to transform a 19th Century Representative Democracy into a more Participative system for the 21st Century. It will not happen overnight and of course actions speak louder than a politician’s words. What is important is that Participatory Democracy is being seen as something that could become the norm in Scotland.


Now we are closer on agreeing about the benefits of participation and engagement, it is time for everyone to collaborate to make a more participative democracy work in reality. To use the First Minister’s own phrase, it is time “to take the highroad of democracy.” I hope to see you all on the bonnie, bonnie banks of participation.