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
Show Hide image

Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue