Calman Commission rejects public meetings

Tom Griffin
24 June 2008

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): Elite suspicion of engagement with the public seems to be something of a political theme at the moment.

The reactions to David Davis's by-election campaign and the Lisbon treaty referendum result in Ireland are the most obvious examples.

Now the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution has provided its own contribution to the genre. Minutes from a meeting of the Commission's Engagement Task Group show that it has rejected public meetings in favour of focus groups:

The Group agreed that it would not be appropriate for the Commission to hold “town-hall” meetings across Scotland open to the general public, at least during the information-gathering stage of its work. Such meetings would be difficult to manage and open to “hijack”, and were unlikely to be an effective means of establishing the balance of public opinion in that area.

Where it was considered important to establish general public opinion on particular issues within the Commission’s remit, a better approach was likely to be the use of focus-groups. These might involve relatively small numbers of people, selected to be representative of the wider population (in relation to age, social class, etc.), with briefing and facilitation to encourage considered and well-informed outputs. Depending on the issues for consideration, it might be necessary to establish different focus-groups in different parts of Scotland.

Joan McAlpine suggests that the Commision "cannot chance coming face-to-face with the substantial number of Scots who voted SNP, nor the upwards of one in three who favour independence", a proposition strictly excluded from its remit.

This might be called the Kelvin McKenzie approach to democracy, claiming majority support without being prepared to test it in a public forum.

At least the Commission's originator cannot be accused of that. Wendy Alexander renewed her call for a referendum on Scottish independence at the weekend.

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