Why is the Scottish independence debate dominated by men?

Women make up 52 per cent of Scotland’s population, and are more likely to be undecided about independence than their male counterparts, yet the public debate about Scotland's future is mostly taking place between white middle-aged men.

“Whenever my female friends talk about the independence referendum, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is always ‘well, my dad says. . .’ They’re letting the men in their lives dictate their opinions on it and I don’t think they even realise that they’re doing it,” says Saffron Dickson, the 16-year-old independence campaigner speaking at the Glasgow launch of Women for Independence. “We’ve just been whispering about equality for so long but now it’s time for women to stand up and have their voices heard.”

Born out of a sense of frustration that the independence debate was being dominated by men, Women for Independence has sought to provide a “safe space” for women to do exactly that. Last week’s Glasgow launch of Women for Independence felt somewhat different to other public events hosted by the Yes Scotland and Better Together camps so far. “Listening exercise toolkits” were handed out on arrival, nobody was singled out as “unionist” or “nationalist” during the discussions and for once, nobody was shouting at each other from opposite sides of the room. It was strictly women only.

“All of us were a bit fed up that whenever independence was being discussed on programmes like Newsnight, it was invariably middle-aged white men talking through a party political viewpoint. It was all very polarised and very much about a Punch and Judy exchange. There didn’t seem to be any real, illuminating discussion, and it certainly wasn’t addressing women’s questions or concerns,” says Caroline Leckie, one of the founders of the organisation. Those sceptical of Leckie’s viewpoint need only try to count the number of high-profile female figures across the debate. The public conversation has so far been carried by Alex Salmond, Alastair Darling, Michael Moore, Blair Jenkins and Blair McDougall. The obvious exception to this is of course Nicola Sturgeon, and yes, the leaders of the pro-union Labour Party and the Conservative Party in Scotland are women. However, it would be dubious to class Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson as top-level ambassadors for the Better Together campaign, given that they rarely discuss independence in a non-partisan capacity.

In fact, a certain weariness about the constant partisan point-scoring and posturing, which has to an extent characterised the public independence debate so far, pervades the Glasgow launch event. One audience member, a former SNP politician, expressed the view that women in general find this element of politics, and particularly the independence debate, off-putting. “I was really good at shouting down opponents when I was in politics but then I thought to myself . . . what a stupid, counter-productive way to get things done at work,” she says.

This led Natalie McGarry, co-founder of Women for Independence and chair of the panel, to speculate that women have a fear of being “shouted down” when they express their concerns and opinions about independence. “I’ve been to Yes meetings across Scotland, and every time, it’s the men who ask the questions. Every time. That’s not to say that women aren’t interested – they usually tend to come up to us at the end to ask questions. I think it’s because some of them worry that they’ll be dismissed or shouted down if they ask them publicly.” Considering the misogynistic vitriol that feminist campaigners like Laura Bates and Caroline Criado-Perez are subjected to, it isn’t hard to believe that being a woman and expressing an opinion is a little akin to sticking your head above the parapet. Eddi Reader, another panellist at the event, learned this the hard way when she received a torrent of abuse on Twitter after her appearance on an episode of BBC Question Time where independence was discussed, with one troll even threatening to cut her tongue out.

Common assumptions about the natural cautiousness of women may or may not be true, but the fact remains that they are more likely to be undecided about independence than their male counterparts. With all to play for before the referendum in September next year, both sides are eager to engage with female voters still to make up their minds, with the SNP’s white paper proposals for an ambitious, Nordic-style system of childcare to bring more women into the workforce of an independent Scotland being the most recent example of this. Regardless of whether women welcome this is a progressive step or view it as an SNP electoral bribe, one thing is clear from the Women for Independence launch – women are far from disinterested in the independence question, and they will not be silenced come 2014.

 

Alex Salmond and other SNP delegates at the launch of the Yes Scotland campaign in 2012. Photo: Getty
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”