Go Lassies Go

My talk at the Positively Independent conference last week seems to have generated a debate. I was quite surprised to be asked to discuss women and independence – first by the SNP Women’s Network in September and more recently by Positively Independent. I don’t write regularly about gender issues. It wasn’t until Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University raised the issue, then taken up be Alex Salmond’s former aide Jennifer Dempsie, that I knew there was a difference between male and female voting patterns and intentions.

It’s important not to exaggerate a gender divide. But in a tight parliament, a few percentage points could make the difference between success and failure. The IPSOS MORI poll in late August, which was actually quite good for the SNP, demonstrates this. The computer analysis is difficult to read – lots of tables to scrawl through here.

However it shows Holyrood voting intentions for the constituency and the SNP winning 34% of men and 26% of women. For Labour the situation was almost reversed, with 27% of men supporting them and 34% of women. Again, we should not overplay this. General (non Scottish) surveys show that social class and age play a more important role than gender in influencing the vote. For more detail see some of the Fawcett Society studies here.

What about voting for independence, as opposed to the SNP? James Mitchell has done more detailed work on this – I couldn’t find any gender breakdowns online. Professor Mitchell says that while the male/female gap is not large, more women support “more powers” or are “undecided” about independence.

Now why might this be? A number of people at the conference, and on Bella, have suggested it’s because of women’s representation. I disagree. 

The SNP has a good track record of prominent females. Margo Macdonald and Winnie Ewing are Scottish icons, admired outside the political sphere. Nicola Sturgeon is the best female politician of her generation. Labour in Scotland simply don’t have anyone to match her, despite their positive discrimination.

I suggested there might be a number of cultural reasons why men are more likely to be attracted to independence than women. To be stereotypical about it, if women see independence as a risk to their family’s security, that’s a problem. It therefore follows that all the sensible arguments about Britain being bankrupt and Scotland having a better future outside the Union are particularly important in winning the female vote.

Anecdotally, some other social factors need to be addressed. Women are more emotionally driven, they have strong ties to friends and family in England. It is crucial that the independence campaign acknowledges these bonds. Saying that Scotland and England will be equal partners in Europe isn’t enough. We need to talk about a new, more equal relationship within the British Isles, perhaps using the Council of the Isles as a model – and pushing the idea of an English parliament as an alternative to the unfair Westminster model.

There are also cultural issues that could explain the gender divide. One is football. While more women are now interested in the game, it does remain a predominantly male obsession. Supporting the Scotland team is an expression of cultural nationalism that many men absorb as boys. FIFA is one of the few international organisations (the Catholic Church is another) that recognises Scotland as a sovereign nation. Also, football is one of the few aspects of national life where we are allowed to celebrate being Scottish. Off the Ball is probably the last remaining entertainment programme that is a living, vital contribution to the national fabric. With the demise of much TV comedy, there’s nothing else to congregate around as Scots. It’s not surprising men make a smoother transition to political nationalism. Quite a bit of traffic to my blog, Go Lassie Go, comes from Tartan Army chatrooms.

So I think football is a positive thing. But what aspects of modern Scottish culture move women who are not football crazy? Women absorb a lot of negative messages about what it means to be Scottish. On the podium last week I stood beside Elaine C Smith who has been playing “character roles” since she was in her 20s. Everybody loves her as Mary Doll or the pantomime dame, cracking Glesga jokes. But little girls who go to see the pantomime in Glasgow don’t want to be her. They notice that the romantic lead, the princess, is always anglicised. This pervades our literature too. The love interest in a William MacIlvanney novel is often more genteel than the working class hero male protagonist.

Modern Scotland feeds a subliminal message to girls that being “too broad” ie Scottish means they won’t get on and will not be considered feminine and desirable. Who wants to be a hairy Mary? (to use the vernacular many aspirational young women are desperate to discard). All the glitzy entertainment TV programmes that many women tend to like, such as X-factor, come from England. All the quality dramas are English. There is no classy costume drama from Scotland despite the plethora of raw material from literature and history.

The Scottish material that is broadcast has poorer production values that women can spot a mile off. Comedy and football are allowed in the vernacular, but any serious stuff cannot be too Scottish. Nor can glamour. It’s absurd since the country is bristling with designers and creatives of all types. Women, therefore, may be more vulnerable to “the cringe”, because often the representations of Scotland they see through the brpoadcast media are second rate. This is particularly true as people become better educated. Middle class men are still passionate about Scotland through football, what binds their wives and girlfriends to the country?

Before we get too downbeat, there are many positives. For example The Fawcett Society research showed that women generally are likely to base their vote on a party’s health and education policies. They often work in these areas and might have children or dependent parents who rely on the services. Women are proportionately less interested in what could be called conceptual matters such as the economy. (Though post the financial crisis this could change) They are not bothered too much about defence either. However women do have a more heightened sense of “fairness” than men.

The SNP can take advantage or this by linking public services to independence in a very specific way. They have managed these services well as a government – hence allaying any fear that an SNP administration was a risk. Now they must demonstrate how independence can meet women’s specific needs. The failure of the alcohol legislation is a good example – we ought to control duty. We could use tax breaks and our oil revenues to invest in renewable energy and create skilled jobs. And naturally, opposition to Trident will appeal to women who, quite sensibly, would rather the money was spent employing nurses.

But it goes beyond all that. The UK union is itself unfair. It is imperative to get this point across if we want to increase women’s support for independence. We need to show human, emotional examples of how it is unfair. Though they might be cautious in their judgements, when incensed by injustice, women lead the way. The Anti Poll Tax Movement involved women organising non-payment unions in their communities – often street-by-street. These were modelled on the much earlier rent strikes, organised by women in Clydebank and Glasgow during WW1 and the 1920s. Women don’t need to be passive and risk averse. When convinced of the cause, there’s no holding them back. If that cause is independence, the only fair future for Scotland, they can be in the vanguard.


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