Suddenly, women’s voices are everywhere in the independence debate. And about time too.
Recently, Carol Fox, who after a lifetime of voting Labour, is a feminist and small business woman, running her own law firm specialising in equality rights which has been fighting for equal pay settlements for women from local authorities for years now, “came out” and announced she’d be voting Yes. Earlier this week, she owned a debate on Newsnight Scotland about women’s attitudes to voting yes. Watch, and feel the depth and strength of her anger, mainly at the party she has belonged to much of her life, at – as she sees it – Labour’s betrayal of Scottish women who have not very much. Key for her is that actions speak louder than words: making change happen is at the heart of her own personal decision to vote yes. Waiting for change to happen – for Labour-run councils do the honourable thing and make good on equal pay settlements – is no longer an option, in her view.
And I was delighted to read that Sara Sheridan, having embarked on a journey of discovery and research to reach an informed decision on how to vote in the referendum, has concluded that she will be voting yes. She has travelled from being an instinctive No voter to undecided and now to yes. Why? “What I’ve discovered about myself is that I want change. That’s the catalyst for my decision. It’s my most important voting issue. For me this isn’t an argument about sterling or the NHS (although both those things are important to me as well) But at base, for me this referendum is an opportunity to leave a corrupt and hopeless system… I want a shot at doing things differently and at having my vote make a difference, which up until now it never ever has. I’ve chatted to No campaigners who say change is possible within the current system but without a yes vote I just don’t believe that enough change will ever happen to satisfy my appetite...”
And it’s not just women.
One of the patterns discernible in the road to the referendum is the role that change as a concept and an aspiration is playing for those whose destination is yes but who might not have started from there.
The huge numbers of entrepreneurial men and women who run their own business joining Business for Scotland are testament to this. Prepared to listen to the arguments, to weigh up the facts and rely on their instincts and judgements to form an opinion, as Sara Sheridan did, everyday more join this part of the Yes movement. Contrast this with those who are appointed to head up the oil-tankers of the business world, whose enterprises get a good deal out of the current set-up in terms of the tax regime, financial services and employment law, who are lining up to plead for the status quo and steady as she goes. They form a veritable poor man’s preservation society.
At the same time, in Scotland’s third sector, there is a definite sense of, if not quite being prepared to come out as cheerleaders, they appear to be people who are extremely relaxed about the prospect of a different future. In this sector, more than any other, change is a constant in their everyday lives, with charities and voluntary organisations having to shape shift to suit funding mechanisms and policy priorities. Indeed, many third sector organisations are created precisely to bring about fundamental and sustainable change, whatever the cause. You can see why then, that people attracted to work for these causes, understand the power and purpose of change.
And then there are individuals who have committed their lives to making change happen within the current democratic and policy frameworks. One of the most interesting, recent declarations for Yes for me was one which was largely ignored or met with a shrug of the shoulders by commentators. Yet, I find his – and others like him – conversion to Yes fascinating. Phil Hanlon is a leading public health official, now Professor of Public Health at Glasgow University. For much of his working life, he has devoted his efforts to tackling inequality in health outcomes. He has researched, written and practised. He has piloted, lobbied and pleaded. He has navigated the current environment, making the case, finding success along the way, but always baby steps. And his conclusion is that having tried his best to bend the current system to his will, his knowledge and his skills, the best hope for reducing inequality lies with independence, for independence will provide better opportunities to make Scotland’s people healthier.
There is no doubt he is influenced by his own personal predilections – the clue is in the nod to a left-leaning approach to tax, fairness and equality. But essentially, it would appear that having weighed up the prospects for an issue he has devoted his working life to and on which he knows a lot, a Yes vote offers the better prospects. How refreshing: evidence-based yes-forming.
Yet, it is clear that many are not quite ready to embrace Yes as a catalyst for change. Indeed, for some, the very idea of the sort of change that independence represents, is exactly why some are voting no. And women form a fairly critical mass in the adverse to change camp. Polling runes are borne out by experience – mine, at least – on the doorstep. Women, particularly older women nearing or over retirement age, are implacably and firmly voting No. Ask them why and one was honest enough to admit, “I just don’t like change“.
But women are also engaged. I’ve enabled and supported young women, from traditionally marginalised communities, to register to vote for the first time ever. Because they are determined to make their voice heard and for their view to count towards their future. For the first time, they feel they have something to vote for – an opportunity for change.
And I’ve also listened to undecided women’s concerns and questions – often, they’re my age, women in-betweeners who are the living embodiment of the sandwich generation. The most exciting thing about listening to and blethering with them is that they are engaged in a way I’ve never known in 20 plus years of campaigning for elections. Only a fool would mistake indecision for indifference. These women are simply – as Sara did – weighing it all up, considering it carefully, looking for unbiased information, having chats with family, friends and work colleagues before deciding how to vote. It’s invigorating to witness and a privilege to be involved.
Considering all of this instils in me a confidence that not only will Scotland vote yes for independence but that a majority of women aged 25 to 54 will also eventually journey to Yes. Why? Because these women are the changemakers, in their communities, in their families and also of their generation.
These are women who have broken through society’s ceilings. Many were the first women in their families to go to university; they are working in careers that were not open to their mothers and grandmothers; they might be the first to have initiated divorce and also to re-marry; some will have been much more open about their sexuality, confident enough to form stable and loving relationships with other women; they will often have lived in different parts of the country, if not the world, moving many times, getting to grips with managing their own money and finances. All through their lives they will not only have coped with change but embraced it and the possibilities it has offered. Certainly, there’s an element of change fatigue, of wanting things to settle and slow down, the older you get.
But when it comes to the crux, when the time comes for them to decide yes or no, most will choose yes. Of this I have no doubt. Because if not for themselves, they will do so for the next generation who need change, wholesale change in our culture, society and economy, if they are to fulfil the aspirations we all have for them.
And there are three things all of us who want Scotland to vote Yes in September need to do. First, it is to reinforce that the choice is not between change and no change. The choice is between making change happen and being in control of what that change looks like and results in, and things changing for the worse. Stay as we are, part of a UK, subject to government by parties increasingly devoid of political ideas to make our lives better and we will get change we did not vote for nor want, over which we have no control nor say. Weigh up the risk and voting no presents a bigger one.
Second, change won’t happen overnight. For a while, things will largely stay the same but we will have the opportunity to have our say on our priorities for change. If women vote yes, they can push for the change they want most for themselves – better childcare, fairer tax, equal pay, more representative government and boardrooms, better careers, decent pensions – and prioritise these into palatable chunks.
And third, we must encourage the undecideds to think hard. Who do you trust to make the right decisions for you and your families? Others, as they have done for all of our lives, far away from where we live? Or ourselves, and everyone all around us? Who knows us best and knows what we need to change and how? If change is to be progressive – the right sort of change at the right time – who can we trust to make that happen? Them or us.
In the last steps of our journey, we need to hear more from the changemakers, the people who have embraced the idea of change and who want to see and make change happen. And key voices are those like Carol Fox, Sara Sheridan and Phil Hanlon – people who began their journey someplace else but who have arrived at Yes. For these changemakers are not only voting Yes, but they can persuade more Scots and indeed, more Scottish women, to vote Yes too.
What I’ve discovered about myself is that I want change. That’s the catalyst for my decision. It’s my most important voting issue. For me this isn’t an argument about sterling or the NHS (although both those things are important to me as well) But at base, for me this referendum is an opportunity to leave a corrupt and hopeless system – the kind of political environment where Labour MSPs vote against free school meals for primary 1-3s just to spite the opposition or where a woman who inadvertently (we hope) takes over £45K of public money yet doesn’t feel the need to pay it back when the error is uncovered, or where UKIP can gain a hold over many English constituencies because people are so desperate for some kind of authenticity – no matter how abhorrent. I want a shot at doing things differently and at having my vote make a difference, which up until now it never ever has.
I’ve chatted to No campaigners who say change is possible within the current system but without a yes vote I just don’t believe that enough change will ever happen to satisfy my appetite.
In the run up to the 1997 General Election, the SNP campaign in Stranraer was visited by Alex Salmond. The day started with some street work in the town centre and activists and members turned out in their finest. But having been out on the stump with the party leader at by-elections, I knew what to expect.
I warned the assembled and excited throng that at best, they could expect a hello or a quick handshake. And so it turned out.
He sailed imperiously down the street, scarcely glancing at the SNP stalwarts, heading straight for the bus queue. For there stood folk whose votes might not yet have been won.
I was reminded of this listening to the First Minister’s speech at Spring Conference today. Its audience was not the assembled mass of Yes voters crammed into the Aberdeen conference centre, but the still to be persuaded out there in their living rooms. In Larkhall, Letham, Lenzie and Leith.
There were, of course, enough hooks and riffs to galvanise the faithful. Several ripostes for the “Westminster establishment” in all its guises. A handful of reminders of the purpose of independence which float the boats of the believers. An end to the iniquitous bedroom tax, to stopping Scotland being ruled by governments it didn’t vote for, and the loudest cheer for the reaffirmation of independence being the route to removing Trident from our shores.
But those expecting big licks might be heading home somewhat puzzled, for there were few in evidence. This was not rambustious, vintage Salmond. But a quieter, more serious Salmond, engaging in a fireside chat with the nation. Alex Salmond was here to have a conversation, so his tone was quite soft, his jokes were actually quite funny and humour was used to make serious points. His pace was measured but also hurried over the big set piece schticks to leave space for new lines and his attention was focused on two key groups of voters. Those who vote Labour and women.
The pitch to Labour supporters was less pronounced than the Depute First Minister’s yesterday and was there for emphasis more than anything else. “Independence will be good for Scottish Labour… It will have the chance to return to core values, many of which we agree with and share.” But the woo is definitely on.
Not before time, is the SNP pitching directly and specifically to Scotland’s women, in whose hands and crosses rest this movement’s fate. There are too many saying they are voting no to be ignored and enough still to make up their minds to make it worth the SNP’s while.
I cannot recall – and I’ve heard a few of his speeches – the First Minister devoting so much of a major speech to women and what are often portrayed as women’s issues. He could have done more, particularly on setting out why the Union has failed Scottish women. Why is it important for an independent Scotland to have powers to enforce the Equal Pay Act? Because women in Scotland are still paid, on average, 12% less than men, consigning more women and by consequence, more children to the misery of low incomes and poverty. And successive UK governments have not made a priority out of using the law to force the pace of change.
But by using his big pre-referendum conference address to bring equality into his Cabinet and to increase women’s representation in that Cabinet to 40% – “the Cabinet is our Board as a country” – he was sending an important message to women all over Scotland. We “practise what we preach”.
He returned too to childcare, setting out “universal childcare and early learning for all of Scotland’s children” as the “independence pledge”. He made the most of the contrast between Scotland and Westminster: “childcare for all families is the priority, not tax breaks for the few”. And to sustained applause, the First Minister crystallised the choice between two futures: “Westminster wants to renew a weapons system which can destroy the world. In an independent Scotland, we want to create a childcare system which will be the envy of the world.”
There was no rousing finish, no tub thumping call to arms. If anything, he got softer still, drawing the listener and viewer in, still wooing, with a warm tribute to Margo and her commitment to “the human community” of Scotland. And appealing, subtly, to our conceit of ourselves, suggesting we might want to keep the eyes of the world on Scotland after 18 September, “to watch in admiration at what we will be building.”
What this conference speech revealed was a hitherto hidden public version of the First Minister. Gone was the purr, the chuckle, the bombast. In its place, an eamest, almost romantic statesman.
And I rather think I like it.
Every day, we assess and manage risk. If we are crossing a road, we look for oncoming traffic in both directions, before deciding when it is safe to step off the pavement. We look in the fridge and decide whether or not to something cooked yesterday or which is a day past its use by date is safe to eat.
Some of us are more prudent than others: the canny will consider available income before splashing out on a desired item. The rest of us tend to just close our eyes and hope that as a result of our splurge, we don’t run out of money before the month’s end.
Of course, some love the thrill of taking a risk. Hence, the willingness of so many to take on seemingly impossible and/or foolhardy activities, pitting themselves against nature in scaling sheer precipices, ski-ing off piste or throwing themselves out of a plane with only a parachute for company. Frankly, if we were to assess the risk of every activity properly and fully, some of us would never bother getting out of bed.
Which is one reason why assessing and managing risk in organisations and businesses is a discipline requiring highly qualified individuals with a seemingly endless enthusiasm for spreadsheets and jargon. It is also in many areas, a required activity in law and in practice. Failure to do so adequately can result in regulatory reprimand: where the risk is of a suitably serious nature it can shut down operations and worse, result in tragedy.
But what leads to tragedies like the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett is not the failure to assess and manage risk but the failure to address it. Doing the former has become a multi-million pound business: like most local authorities in Scotland, Edinburgh City will have a team of people and a slew of software, processes and procedures which generate a highly detailed and complex register, requiring regular reports to key personnel. The annual cost of all this activity across all public sector bodies? Tens of millions.
Yet, the management of risk is not, by itself, an exact science. Judgements on the likelihood of risks together with their likely impact/consequence and whether or not they are likely to happen are subjective. Human nature is an influence: the risks adults face and the consequences of not managing or addressing those risks will feature more frequently simply because it is adults who make the decisions. Financial considerations play a role, as do politics, even if at a sub-conscious level: elected members being lobbied by vociferous local communities for improved street lighting, pothole filling or dog poo bins will feel the dread prospect of votes lost if they fail to act. And the cost of addressing such risks will also be pretty small beer – making straitened budgets go further is always a consideration. Especially if that council has had to settle eye-watering compensation claims for vehicles damaged by poor local roads in recent years.
Then there is the absurdity of the current financial approach. There is an annual ritual of roadworks in the last two months of every financial year as local authorities rush to spend out capital allocations before they disappear. Partly this is because the process from identifying budgets, agreeing spending priorities, tendering for work, committing funds to contracts and timetabling activity can, and does, takes months. But it also results from underspend arising from such programmes, particularly winter maintenance revenue budgets, and the dread silo approach, where few councils insist on taking all repairs and maintenance budgets back into the centre to determine on council-wide rather than department-focussed priorities. Ultimately, there is a pressure each and every year to spend out rather than save up.
This maelstrom of competing factors and considerations helps to determine which risks need to be mitigated by action. Sitting looking over the shoulder of it all is health and safety law, which many have developed into a reason to prevent things from happening. Too often, health and safety law provides lazy and lame excuses for disallowing activity which is considered too hard to make happen. Thus, some councils might ban the visiting of farms by young school-children on the grounds of risk to health, yet those same councils will allow those same children every day in life to use toilets which lack hot water, contain cracked sanitary ware and are not cleaned (in some cases) every day.
In the public sector, the burgeoning of risk assessment and management across organisations neatly highlights some of the key arguments for reform. Millions are spent at not making issues go away and on producing nothing very useful to citizens but white collar jobs, infrastructure and systems are invested in and sustained in order to enable and feed all this circular activity. The financial framework drives short-termism so that strategic analysis of the failure to address risk over the long term is often absent. And those with little voice, those furthest from power and influence, find that the risks to their well-being are the ones least likely to be addressed.
For if none of that were so, top of any local authority’s risk register would be the need to invest in providing every child in Scotland with a high quality space in which to learn and to spend the 30 or so hours a week they are entrusted to the council’s care. They would not have to suffer sitting in classrooms draughty through metal window frames long past their replacement date; they would not have to eat in shifts, or corridors or in some cases, outside; they would not have to listen to the constant plunk of dripping water into buckets from leaky roofs, upsetting their ability to concentrate; they would not have to take in their own drinking water because water fountains are broken or considered to be germ factories; we would not have disabled children being changed on floors because of a lack of accessible facilities; we would not have parents fundraising furiously to make playgrounds fit for playing in; we would not have children suffering back problems due to a lack of locker space.
We would not have any of this if we applied the same rigorous requirements to schools as we apply to our own, adult work spaces. And if we did, we would have spaces which encourage and enable children to learn and to flourish, resulting in improved educational attainment and enhanced life chances for all. Given what we know about the influence of environmental factors on performance, why is a high quality learning place for every child not the highest priority for all councils? Take a look at any local authority risk register and the potential for our children to fail in life as a result of a crumbling school will not feature as a risk. And I doubt if the likelihood of a school in a poor state of repair and condition to cause the injury or death of a child is probably at the top of the register either.
Because if it was, we would not have poor conditions in any of our schools. And even if we did still have wobbly walls in gyms, we would not wait until a young life is tragically, needlessly lost before requiring them to be fixed.