Adventures in democratic progress.

“These teenagers! I’ve never seen anything like them. They have access to so much information and they are facing serious problems, unlike anything faced by previous generations. No way are those problems going to be solved by conventional politics, and they know it.”

So said Jamie Kelsey Fry, drawing on his classroom experience, as he bemoaned the structural, systemic inability of conventional political institutions to solve the big global issues (apologies if it is not a perfectly verbatim quote). In the same breath he relished the prospect of a new generation taking matters into its own hands and bypassing those institutions. He was speaking at the Scottish Parliament’s Festival Of Politics during a panel event called People, Parliaments, Possibilities?

The full panel consisted of Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Jamie Kelsey Fry, and Brett Hennig, and it was nicely chaired and deftly steered by Shelagh Wright into a series of stories and discussions about giving political agency to ordinary people. The panel members became “agents of agency”.

“These teenagers” are going to need a different kind of political agency to confront climate breakdown and inequality. And much of the evening was devoted to what a different kind political agency might look like.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir tried changing things from the inside as a member of the Icelandic parliament, latterly as a member of the Pirate Party. The experience left her disillusioned. “Parliament has no power,” she said, and illustrated this with some insight into the process of law making. She advocates for laws to be published with track changes visible so that people can see who has actually written them. They are not written by parliament. Laws are written by lawyers. Indeed, the writing of tax law is often outsourced to the likes of Deloitte. Track changes would make the process transparent. It is a far cry from Birgitta’s vision of a constitution being, “who we are as a nation reflected in our highest law.” She eventually left parliament and said that her time on the inside left her feeling like “toxic waste”.

But this was no downbeat evening. Stories of bottom up democracy helped to restore a mood of determined optimism amongst those present.

Jamie Kelsey Fry talked about the spirit of Fearless Cities and the principles of Municipalism, drawing parallels with his experiences of the Occupy movement. And Brett Hennig talked about the practicalities associated with institutionalising randomly selected citizen assemblies. Audience comments and questions focused on these practical considerations rather than the theory of sortition, a sign that the underlying logic of assemblies is both easily understood and compelling.

So it was good. It was encouraging. This bottom up democracy thing has potential. You can feel the momentum (small m) at at these events. The audiences members are not all veteran activists. They are not all politics nerds. They are all interested citizens who are united in their concerns about a broken system.

“As soon as you say, ‘It’s nothing to do with left or right,’ doors open.”

So said Jamie Kelsey Fry. He was recounting his experiences of the kind of unified purpose that transcends political allegiances, but he was also succinctly capturing the mood of the room. Agency follows when progress on big issues takes precedence over party politics.

Agency also follows when you grab it with both hands. Birgitta Jónsdóttir epitomises that attitude. She makes agency sound simple, accessible and imperative.

“I’ve always been compelled to put my weight into democracy. One of us will be the tipping point. What if it could be me?”

Hopefully “those teenagers” will take heed.