2007 - 2021

You’re So Vain

Despite a two-decade commitment to the principle, the SNP has, so far, failed to achieve gender balance among its elected representatives. There is a sense of a new commitment to the idea, however. Gender balance is customarily seen as an equality issue, and, of course, it is that. But it is helpful to reframe this as an effectiveness question as well. We need more women in leadership roles. We need younger candidates, and we need more ethnic minority MSPs and MPs, including more people born in England who have chosen to live in Scotland. This is a time when the SNP needs a renewal. There is no shortage of talent among younger members. Perhaps all of these questions can be addressed together. While this article is specifically about the SNP and its processes, there could be lessons for opposition parties, too.


Currently the focus for the SNP has turned to the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. There is a possibility that this contest may also become a surrogate Indyref, or something like it, so it’s important we do well. A NEC-backed resolution at last October’s Annual Conference called for all constituency candidates to be in place by ‘Spring 2020’, and the Party has just fired the starting gun in this process. Conference resolved to ‘aim for 50/50 gender balanced representation’ using all female lists where an existing MSP is standing down, and ‘zipping’ the regional lists. At first glance this seems worthy, but perhaps also a bit timid. We might ‘aim for 50/50’ and still make no actual difference. And, anyway, would it be disastrous if women outnumbered men for a change? (Spoiler alert: it wouldn’t! In Finland, all the major party leaders are female, and 12 of the 19 cabinet portfolios are held by women mainly under the age of 40. They seem to be doing fine).

At the Holyrood election in 1999, the SNP returned 35 MSPs, mostly on the ‘additional member list’. Some 43% were women and the average age of all SNP MSPs was 46. In 2020, there are 61 SNP MSPs (note: two less than in 2016). Now, women still count only 43% but the average age (of male and female MSPs) has risen to 54. In these two decades, while the shift towards gender equity has been, at best, marginal, the age of MSPs has increased significantly. At present, only one of our MSPs is under the age of 30. (Although it took place after the 2019 National Conference decision on gender balance, the selection process for Westminster resulted in only one third of SNP MPs being female, and only two under the age of 30).

The SNP has been in government for over 12 years now, and there are signs of entitlement and privilege among some longer serving members, notably male members, which could prove a huge drawback for the Party in the next few years. Natural political gravity is taking its toll. There are hints of the last few months of the John Major era with only the hapless and fractured opposition at Holyrood standing between the SNP and a period out of government.

The Selection Process

It is necessary to say just a little about how the SNP selects its parliamentary candidates. The process is not well understood by the Party’s large membership. Potential candidates are assessed (‘vetted’) by HQ after they apply to join the ‘rolling list’ of candidates. Theoretically you can apply at any time, but in practice there are peaks and troughs which relate to the Holyrood and Westminster electoral cycles. For those lucky enough to be considered, assessment involves a day of workshops and an interview. (Some potential candidates don’t make it that far, being filtered out on a basis of references, or possibly being ‘red-lighted’ by a more powerful rival).

Approved candidates are then able to seek a constituency nomination, and, if there is a contest, all party members in that constituency get to vote in an online ballot. This part of the process is overseen by Constituency Associations. There are some drawbacks in all this.

It is commonly held that we will improve the quality of our representatives by increasing the proportion of women leaders. Hence the proposal for all-female lists in event of an MSP retiring. But it is also true that if we increase the standard and quality of our candidates and leaders, then the proportion of women will rise automatically. Let’s look at the evidence.

Confidence vs Competence

Gender imbalance in leadership roles is all but universal, historically favouring males. It transcends national boundaries and crosses many disciplines. So, male dominance is commonplace in industry and professions as well as politics. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an Argentinian psychologist now working in the USA and London, has an interest in this debate. His recent very readable book “Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? (and how to fix it)” addresses this headline question in a concise 200 pages.

The dust-cover introduction reads:

“Marshalling decades of rigorous research, Chamorro-Premuzic points out that although men make up a majority of leaders, they underperform when compared to female leaders. In fact, most organisations equate leadership potential with a handful of destructive personality traits, like overconfidence and narcissism. In other words, these traits may help someone get selected for a leadership role, but they backfire once the person has the job. When competent women – and men who don’t fit the stereotype – are unfairly overlooked, we all suffer the consequences. The result is a deeply flawed system that rewards arrogance rather than humility, and loudness rather than wisdom.”

(The work is erudite, but accessible and, at times, entertaining. Reporting the 2005 research of the eminent psychologist Janet Shelby-Hyde of Wisconsin University, researching gender difference on huge data sets, Chamorro-Premuzic reports that negligible differences are found in IQ between males and females. On the other hand “in 22% of cases, men and women differed: men can throw an object further and faster than women can, men tend to masturbate more frequently – or at least they are more inclined to report it – and men tend to have a more positive view of casual sex.”)

In explaining ‘why most leaders are inept’, we read:

“We have created unspoken stereotypes of leaders as people – usually men – who seem oblivious to their weaknesses. And we have great tolerance for people – again, usually men – who are not as talented as they think”. In the ‘difference between competence and confidence’, this dichotomy is expressed as “competence is how good you are at something; confidence is how good you think you are at something”. And again: “Imagine that you are getting a root canal, and the dentist is coming toward your mouth with the drill. Would you rather that he or she was lacking in confidence, or competence?”

How much does this matter in a political party? Chamorro-Premuzic lists some catastrophic leadership mistakes which have derived from overconfident decisions, including Napoleon’s march on Moscow, John F Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Vietnam War, concluding: “by the same token, overconfident leaders routinely put themselves forward for tasks for which they are not qualified or equipped, and their lack of competence seriously handicaps the performance – and morale – of their teams”.

Spotting narcissism at work

So what do we need to know about negative psychological traits? Narcissism is 40% more prevalent in men compared to women. And several times more prevalent in leaders than in the general population. You will recognise these people. You may have worked with some.

“Firstly, narcissism involves an unrealistic sense of grandiosity and superiority, manifested in the form of vanity, self-admiration, and delusion of talent. Second, narcissists tend to be self-centred. They are less interested in others and have deficits in empathy, the ability to feel what they are feeling. For this reason, narcissists are rarely found displaying any genuine consideration for people other than themselves. Thirdly, narcissists enjoy a high sense of entitlement, commonly behaving as if they deserve certain privileges or enjoy higher status than their peers enjoy”. Rules are there to be broken: Party rules, GDPR, expenses claims, marriage vows, whatever, these don’t apply to the narcissist. Recently, several studies have shown that you can detect narcissism from a person’s digital footprint. For example, sexier, more attractive, self-promoting Facebook pictures, . . . . all suggest narcissism”.

Again: “Whereas a good leader gets along with team members and peers to help them get ahead of competing teams and organisations, a narcissistic leader gets ahead within his own team. Such a leader becomes a lone wolf at best and a parasite at worst’. Narcissists are significantly more prone to counter-productive and antisocial work behaviours, such as claiming credit for other people’s work, bullying, gaslighting, fraud, white-collar crime and harassment, including sexual harassment. And, given the contagious nature of these toxic traits, their teams and organisations are more likely to engage in these unethical and destructive activities as well.

Emotional Intelligence

Arguably the flip side of narcissism is Emotional Intelligence (EQ), a term coined by Yale’s Peter Salovey in 1990. Now there is a vast body of research on the topic. EQ strongly predicts people’s resilience and tolerance to stress, and enables three important leadership competencies: transformational leadership, personal effectiveness and self-awareness. EQ is strongly associated with empathy, the ability to know what other people are feeling and thinking. Empathic leaders have the ability to see problems from other people’s perspectives, making them less self-centred and more flexible in problem solving. Here’s the thing, and it’s not really a surprise: women tend to have higher EQ than men. Select your leaders from candidates with higher EQ, and you will have a better group of leaders. You will also have more women.

What should we do?

Some cultures venerate older people, but this is not an obvious feature of modern Scottish society. People can gain wisdom and valuable experience with time. There are clearly some older SNP MSPs (especially those with a ministerial record) who approach being indispensable to the Party. Negative traits can also increase with time, however. It is not hard to spot the representative whose aura of entitlement has burgeoned over the years. Some exude a sense of superiority, and are clearly wedded to the healthy salary and to the prospect of a fat pension. The latter group may not be the best we have available. They are mostly men. When the SNP started winning seats in serious numbers, for example in the Holyrood election of 1999, I don’t ever recall any party activists saying: “Isn’t that great! A few guys will now have a job for life!”

We know a fair bit about the population that favours Independence most strongly. They are young. Almost 75% of voters under the age of 30 support Independence. A higher proportion of young people have also fallen off the voters roll in the last few years, and we know young people are less likely to vote. So why are we putting up so many older males “just because they are there”? Fortunately, there is some low hanging fruit, and where SNP HQ has information on sitting MSPs which threatens their suitability to represent the Party, it should not be ignored. What else are the ‘men in grey suits’ for?


After 12 years as the natural party of government in Scotland and with a potential Independence Referendum on the cards, the quality of our elected representatives is crucially important, and a period of renewal is called for. For a party which has its greatest support among voters under the age of 30, and recognises a challenge in appealing to female voters, it is counter-intuitive, maybe catastrophically so, to stick with a slate dominated by greying older males, including some potential ‘tabloid time-bombs’.

The SNP should put up the best candidates it can find. SNP members, and the wider Independence Movement deserve the finest available representatives, and are surely entitled to some degree of sanctimony as we choose them. We should look particularly to women and to younger people. It’s time. After the Independent Labour Party (ILP) won its 1922 landslide in Glasgow in 1922, John Wheatley addressed his jubilant supporters, saying “In all things we will abjure vanity and self-aggrandizement, recognising that we are the humble servants of the people and that our only righteous purpose is to promote the welfare of our fellow citizens and the well-being of all mankind.” How our hopefuls rate on the ‘humble servants of the people’ scale is a legitimate question – and, at times, a legitimate concern.

The Party, centrally, is acting in good faith in addressing candidate selection issues, but needs to do some heavy lifting. De-selection of a sitting MSP at constituency level can’t be done without serious adverse publicity for the Party. So, here’s my take home points for selection panels at HQ and for Constituency Associations faced with choices:


  1. Focus on the quality of applicants and the proportion of women selected will increase.
  2. Don’t confuse confidence with competence.
  3. The aspirations of serving representatives and the needs of the movement can be strikingly divergent, and we should favour the latter.
  4. For the good of the movement at this critical juncture, serving MPs/MSPs should face the same process and be subject to the same criteria as new applicants.
  5. Too many self-important, grey-haired men are an electoral turn-off.
  6. Recognise obvious ‘red flags’ and take appropriate action.



Competing interests: None. Malcolm Kerr joined the SNP in 1967, successfully passed candidate selection in 1999 and 2015, is currently Constituency Organiser in Cunninghame North, and has no personal ambitions in politics.


Address for correspondence: tuathair@aol.com

Comments (26)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    On the whole, I agree pretty strongly with the arguments presented here, although I have some minor quibbles about aspects. For example, while I recognise what he means when he presents a confidence/competence dichotomy, it is, ultimately, a false dichotomy because we need people who are competent to have a fair degree of confidence and we need to recognise that some people are confident because they know they are competent (having a guid conceit of yourself). Nevertheless, I think the principles are worth heeding.

    Another factor is that most of the people with the power to bring about the changes are men, who tend to be older. (I am now retired, but throughout my career held a number of senior posts and was grey haired from the age of 30.) While some might portray men in such positions as being ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ and, by implication, unlikely to facilitate such changes. However, many of us do have self-awareness and a sincere belief in the need to make the group of people in influential positions more representative of the population as a whole.

    Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who are not heterosexual, etc., suffer disproportionate levels of abuse and threat, particularly when they put themselves forward for leadership roles and even when they are in such roles and this is a strong disincentive and, therefore, it is important that all of us ‘call out’ such behaviour and investigate thoroughly any complaints of harassment, no matter the status of the person who is the person being complained about.

    Thank you, Mr Kerr.

  2. Ann Rayner says:

    Over-confidence, arrogance, narcissism, priviledge, positive view of casual sex – sums up the current PM really well.

  3. Daniel Raphael says:

    Interesting and informative article. As always, feminism is the leavening needed in this and with other dimensions of life–including of course political life. Glad to tweet this article to my group of usual suspects.

  4. Alex K says:

    Your comments on the need for younger people seem to me to border on ageism. While we need to get rid of older dead wood and have a good balance of gender, age etc, Johnson’s appointment of Andrew Sabisky suggests that younger people in leadership position are perhaps not as beneficial to the country.

    Younger people tend to be less cautious than old, perhaps because they have not been knocked back/down by the unforeseen consequences of a “great idea” not properly thought through. We tend to focus on cases where the go-for-it approach has worked.

    Having said that young people seem more likely to have ground breaking ideas, but the way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas and a wayt o finter out the bad ones. Older people can be one way to do this. so younger people to generate ideas and older people to point out the flaws, if any.

    By the way Older people can have good ground breaking ideas.

  5. florian albert says:

    I am not sure that Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia in 1812 has much to tell us about contemporary Scotland. I would like to know why we seem to have such a lack of competence when it comes to so many public ventures, projects and policies; The Holyrood Building Edinburgh’s trams, Curriculum for Excellence, building ferries for the Western Isles. hospitals in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
    It occurs to me that these failures are in areas where Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was viewed as a world leader.
    I doubt – no more – that the age and gender of those in authority was a major factor in recent failures.

    1. Julian Smith says:

      A classic feature of abusive behaviour is constantly to belittle. Much of the media in this country is abusive by this criterion, focusing on anything that can be portrayed as a failure of Scotland in general or of the SNP Government. Some of the situations you instance happen all the time as a result of unforeseen circumstances. The Titanic sank; the Hindenburg burst into flames; the Tay Bridge collapsed; HS2 is running way above budget; Carillion collapsed. None of this is new. None of it is an indication of unique Scottish incompetence.
      The Curriculum for Excellence is in a different category. It predates the SNP Government. The ideas behind it mean that it is among the most advanced Curriculum Models in the world. But there is a discontinuity between education as a preparation for the future and its role as a means to rank and sort students to fit a hierarchical society. Our very existence will depend on cooperation with others as equals, rather than on power and rank. We should be proud the Curriculum for Excellence and be prepared to invest much more in its successful implementation.

      1. florian albert says:

        You refer to back to events over a century ago. My examples of failure in Scotland are all from the last 20 years. ( I never suggested that such failures were unique to Scotland.)

        I have yet to meet a classroom teacher who shares your enthusiasm for CfE. People such as Lindsay Paterson and Keir Bloomer have outlined its failures in articulate detail.
        Scottish levels of educational attainment, as outlined in the PISA surveys, are at a lower level than they were in 1999.
        For so many pupils, CfE is an even poorer ‘preparation for the future’ than the inadequate system it replaced.
        Even if it were theoretically wonderful, we can only judge it as it has has been implemented.

  6. Fay Kennedy says:

    I am disconcerted by the comment on the older person as it seems to be that there is much to be gained from having a wiser head in positions of responsibility and when I peruse the general state of health both physical and mental of some of our younger demography it does not auger well for the future be that Scotland or any other country. Not that there should be discouragement or prejudice against the young or any other marginalised group for a decent society would have diversity and inclusivity at its heart. We are a very long way from that and if we continue to ignore the devastation of a class system nothing much will shift.

    1. Jo says:


      I’m disconcerted too.

      Frankly, I’d really like to see people arriving in politics with a work record behind them rather than have career politicians with a degree and precious little else behind them.

      The author speaks of “entitlement” while pretty much demanding that very thing for people of a certain age…he wants them in leadership while still under 30! And he’s pretty much writing off older politicians as worthless. What a smack in the face to many ordinary people out here trying to find jobs who, in the author’s eyes, are clearly fit only for the scrap heap. Shocking stuff.

      “Narcissism is 40% more prevalent in men compared to women.”

      Jesus wept! Where do people dig this stuff up? I’ve worked in large organisations with men and women. The flaws were evenly distributed between the sexes and I’m scunnered to the back teeth of all this competing over who is “best”. The trick is to behave like grown ups no matter what gender one is.

      As for “confidence over competence”, that can crash and burn too. I’ve seen confidence lead people, men and women, to believe they’re already equipped for anything when they’re not. Competence first I say.

      Honestly, with all we’re dealing with right now, I really despair over what some folk are on crusades over. But, hey, I’m 61 now, what the blazes would I know, eh Mr Kerr? I’d best just get myself away to the nearest scrap heap.

      1. Malcolm Kerr says:

        Jo. Thanks for your comments and for taking the time to read my article. It is important to get a dialogue going on how we choose our elected representatives. I genuinely think you may have misunderstood my point about competence and confidence however, as I completely agree with your second last paragraph. MK

      2. Grafter says:

        We’ll said Jo.

    2. Robbie says:

      Fay your right on the money.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    I think there is a simpler way of looking at this, using a metaphor from computer gaming. In a society where women are generally playing on a higher difficulty setting, women who achieve goals will tend to have a better skillset. In Minecraft you can play in Survival Mode where monsters can attack you, or Creative Mode where they cannot harm you. However, some players on the harder life setting will just get killed.

    The idea would be to move people onto an equitable difficulty setting in life.

    I also think focus on leadership roles misses the point. We need better collective decision-making, not a hierarchy of rulers, and participative not representative democracy (which fails because of corruption and so forth). Only then will you include the contributions of everyone who wants a say in politics (how we arrange to live together).

    Sure, dismantle Patriarchy. But main thing is not so much a 50/50 balance and still 100% humans, is that we have far too great a representation of humans in politics, along with another kind of monster: corporations (which have embued themselves with some human rights too). We have to find ways of representing non-humans life and rights within politics. Either as an augmentation to participative collective decision-making (like political artificial intelligences) or as representatives of the living world and non-living spheres (like the atmosphere). Creating effective representation for those interests should be one of our highest political priorities, in my view.

    (By the way, I really object to depicting war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against nature as ‘mistakes’ stemming from ‘overconfident decisions’!)

  8. Mairi MacIver says:

    Why on earth did you have the title, “You’re so vain” beneath a photo of the new Finance Secretary, who just happens to be female?

    1. Malcolm Kerr says:

      I guess I was hoping readers would quickly get to the fifth sentence of the first paragraph which says: “we need more women in leadership roles”. But sincere apologies if this has caused offence.

      1. Mairi MacIver says:

        Didn’t cause offence, just left me perplexed. Wee bit more thought next time!

        1. Sorry Mairi – this was the authors suggested title.

          It wasn’t really meant to be about Katie Forbes in particular, as the rest of the article made clear. I maybe should have chosen another image or discussed the title with Malcolm. I thought it was a really useful article despite this.

          1. Mairi MacIver says:

            Yes, it was a good article but the image and headline were badly matched! Cheers.

  9. Jack collatin says:

    Politicians talking about themselves, while queues lengthen at food banks.
    Labour up to its arm pits in a 5 month ‘leadership’ Beauty Pageant, the Lib Dems in the same boat, and Carjack Lawson takes over from Supermom after 3 months for some 6000 old Tories to decide between and mother of six UCS champion Ballantyne; and Nick Eardley ahs nothing else to report in politics than unconfirmed rumours that Sturgeon faces a leadership challenge in the spring.
    And now Feminism….
    Scotland burns, and politicians are too busy fighting their own little risk free internal battles.
    I favour a revolt.

  10. Morag Williams says:

    Good article.

    Preselection for all positions needs to be taken seriously and some need to reconsider their applications.

    I’m disgusted by Angus Robertson competing with Joanna Cherry in Edinburgh for the seat that may soon be vacated by Ruth Davidson.

    Firstly, the incumbent, is female and in the interests of maintaining women in Holyrood, the SNP should seriously consider some affirmative action to ensure that the SNP candidate is female.

    Secondly, it is not appropriate for Angus Robertson to argue that he is a better because he can be a full-time candidate and Joanna Cherry could only be a part-time candidate. If Angus has so much time on his hands to campaign would it not be more appropriate to campaign in a more marginal area. Does he not have a daughter to look after? Is he not aware that girls need female role models to achieve something akin to equality of opportunity? Does he even live in the area? Does he have a squeaky clean background or could something from his past come back to haunt the SNP?

    Malcolm is correct re competence and confidence. Competent women often do not apply for jobs because they prefer to put the effort in to the achievable rather than be knocked back by stacked boards and the like.

    1. I’m not sure about all of your various points Morag, but Angus does live in the area, yes.

  11. Neill Simpson says:

    “Women of the world! Take over! ‘Cos If you don’t the world will come to an end; and we haven’t got long.”
    (Ivor Cutler)
    Performed at the tribute concert (“Return to Y’hup”) at Celtic Connections

  12. Iain Black says:

    What this crucial misses is the importance of functional and contextual expertise. Broadly the selection processes of all the parties and increasingly the SNP favour, through, association and knowledge of internal party structures and relationships, candidates whose experience is of insular political contexts that reward adherence and devotion to existing, established limiting and small c conservative policy agendas designed to retain power. We need a representative parliament reflecting not only who we are, but as important and where we are failing even more dramatically, representing expertise and experience of the institutions that are the basis of our prosperity. Otherwise we will continue with a parliament increasingly filled with those who knows about holding on to power but do not know how to use it for the good of those who elect them.

  13. James Morrison. says:

    This may not be the place to ask this question? Humza Yousaf had what is described as a racist rant in Holyrood this was broadcast on Canadian Television he stated that at the top in everything in Scotland everyone is WHITE .This can be seen in Youtube just type his nameI feel if anyone else following his law would be in Jail.I have emailed Peter Murrel, Gavin Newlands so far have not had a reply .
    If I don’t get a reply .I will be terminating my monthly subscription and membership of the SNP they were the party with the means of getting us independence which I support, I am sure another bus will come along.
    I apologise if I have intruded in this discussion

    1. Malcolm Kerr says:

      James. This is a bit OT. However, . . . The clip was from the talk show of a right wing extremist (Ezra Levant) and taken completely out of context. Levant’s website ‘Rebel News’ is known for its far-right anti-Muslim ideology. Yousaf is no racist. He doesn’t hate white people. He was fairly pointing out the absence of diversity in Scottish society, especially its top governmental and judicial roles. If you have reservations about the hate crime bill (and many do) don’t leave the SNP: stay and change things. I bet you won’t get any kind of reply from Peter Murrell but Gavin Newlands ought to get back to you.

  14. Hamish Kirk says:

    School, university, politics.So many coming in without experience of working.

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