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
Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.