Pilot film screenings (and the wisdom of crowds.)

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There was no red carpet and there were no paparazzi. Fittingly, there was not a whiff of elitism about our premiere.

We showed our pilot film - When Citizens Assemble - to audiences in Edinburgh and Glasgow. And we combined these screenings with expert panel sessions to discuss the issues raised. In the process we made some friends and maybe influenced a few people too, in the nicest possible way. We were grateful for the healthy turnout in both locations, we were encouraged by the warm reaction to the film, and we were bowled over by the quality of discourse.

When Citizens Assemble was filmed in Dublin in July 2017. It documents the context, the purpose and the deliberations of the Irish Citizens' Assembly, which was convened to make recommendations on the possible liberalisation of the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution. The 8th Amendment gives an unborn fetus the same right to life as its mother and, at the time of writing, is effectively a de facto ban on abortion.

The purpose of this film, indeed the purpose of this entire project, is to demonstrate that ordinary citizens, given the opportunity and a conducive environment, are perfectly capable of making well-considered policy decisions. This is a topical issue in Scotland. The introduction of citizens' assemblies to tackle specific issues, and the possibility of a citizens' second chamber to the Scottish Parliament are both live discussions. So Scotland felt like a good place to give our first film its first public airings.

In Edinburgh the film was shown to an audience of civil servants in the Scottish Government building on Victoria Quay, at an event kindly organised by Doreen Grove and Angie Meffan-Main. With the added stimulus of input from panel members, Dr Roslyn Fuller and Maia Almeida-Amir, there was a high-energy discussion about the merits of sortition and assemblies, and the potential to apply these ideas to policy making in Scotland.

The Glasgow event was organised and supported by our friends at Common Weal. And we were grateful once again to Maia and Roslyn who joined our own Patrick for the panel session, which was chaired by Isobel Lindsay.

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The conversation was notable not just for the quality of the contributions from both audience members and the panel, but also for the quality of the listening and a universal willingness to consider alternative points of view. It was all a far cry from the adversarial politics that we have come to know and loathe. Finding consensus in the pursuit of progress is a refreshing change from conflict in the pursuit of power.

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There was a lively discussion about suitable issues to be addressed by citizen assemblies - including universal basic income, a second chamber to parliament, and "hot potato" issues where career politicians fear to tread. There were questions about how the principles of random selection and citizen participation can work at scale, which drew an informed response from Roslyn. Maia talked from first-hand experience about the case for over-representing minority groups in order for their views to be adequately represented. Echoing one of the Irish Assembly participants featured in our film, Maia also challenged the idea that young people lack the appetite and sophistication to tackle complex political issues - witness the social media savvy of Parkland students in Florida. And there was much talk of the need for genuine political authority to be given to assemblies, alongside the tools and environment for deliberation. Amen to that.

Patrick described these screenings as being akin to planting acorns. Judging by the reaction to the film, and the constructive, forward-leaning responses of both audiences, those acorns have been planted in fertile soil.


Dr Roslyn Fuller is a renowned democracy academic and author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose.

Maia Almeida-Amir is an intersectional feminist activist who also took part in the Citizens' Assembly on Brexit. She is completing an MA in Philosophy and Politics at the University of Edinburgh.

Common Weal is a 'think and do tank' campaigning for social and economic equality in Scotland.

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