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.
The endless media loop recording tributes and opprobrium in equal measure on the death of Margaret Thatcher has thrown up few surprises. Except for the number of women, high-profile and ordinary, remarking, often tearfully and proudly on her role as the UK’s first, and to date, only, woman to occupy the highest political office. This I find astonishing, given how frequently harmful her policies and ideological convictions were to women.
We’ll leave aside the impact of her systematic dismantling of key industries on communities all across Scotland and the UK. Women, directly and indirectly, paid a high price for the unemployment created in the 80s. And while many engendered a renewed resilience in facing a common foe and in standing with their menfolk on picket lines, the havoc wreaked resulted in absolute poverty, homelessness and hunger. I remember giving over my pocket-money regularly to appeals for various communities enduring real hardship and hunger as a result of her economic policies.
But a glance at specific measures and indicators show how well the Iron Lady pulled the ladder up behind her: her becoming Prime Minister might have been expected to herald a rush of women entering parliament but far from it. When she came to power, there were only 19 female MPs and by the time she resigned, that number had increased to only 41. Worse, no women were promoted under her premiership to a full Cabinet role and only a handful were deemed worthy of a Ministerial portfolio.
She presided over the dismantling of the wages councils: somewhat ironically, these had been established in 1909 by one of her political heroes, Winston Churchill. And while some argue that the councils’ role in establishing minimum rates of pay and holiday entitlement for a wide range of trades artificially suppressed earnings, there is no doubt that they provided protection for workers in sectors where women often predominated, such as hairdressing, retailing and clothing manufacture. Her antipathy was driven by ideology, believing that market forces should determine what employers might pay their workers.
The fight to win equal pay also stalled under Thatcher. In 1979, the gap in full time hourly earnings was 28.7% – by 1990, it had reduced by just over 5%. But the gap in part time earnings actually widened. Moreover, on her watch, the concept of equal value was added to the legislation, adding to the test which had to be satisfied. While this has undoubtedly helped many women in recent years receive the same salary as colleagues, it is worth noting that it took until 1988 for the first equal value case to be won by a woman, after ten years of fighting through tribunals and the courts. In the early days, it stymied women’s rightful ambitions to earn the same as men – as Thatcher’s government intended.
Thatcher also did little to further women’s maternity rights. While Iraqi women were entitled to full pay on maternity leave from the 1970s and enjoyed extensive workplace nursery benefits, in Thatcher’s Britain, women had very little rights. Employers could allow as little maternity leave as they liked, with entitlement linked to length of service and workplace nurseries were treated as a taxable benefit, deducted from earnings. In 1987, the universal maternity grant was abolished, state paid maternity allowance was restricted and a woman lost a landmark case against her employer which singled her out for redundancy because she was pregnant.
Women might have been entitled to expect that a female Prime Minister might have resulted in gains for women economically, socially and in public life. But the opposite was true. So many of her policies either hurt women directly or disdainfully treated them as collateral damage. This lady did little for the lot of women in the UK despite having the power to improve our lives in so many ways. We have little to lament on her passing.
I asked a number of women to contribute some thoughts to the blog to mark the occasion of the day. But, being a wumman with far too much to do and too little time in which to do it, I half-ersed it. In that, I had the thought but then forgot to do the asking until it was almost too late.
Didn’t give folk enough time. Cos they are all dead busy women too, but a few did indeed come up trumps. And their thoughts are well worth having and sharing.
Are there any lessons from this wee episode? Aside from me needing to plan things better (I have been urged to try this from an early age and never really quite got round to giving it a whirl)? How about – how can we make women’s lives less busy so that they have more time to share with each other and simply to be. Yup that would do it.
First up, Kezia Dugdale, Labour MSP for Lothians and one of the 2011 intake. It would be remiss of me not to say that Kez is one of the bright young political things and is fairly making her mark, with a swift promotion into the Shadow Cabinet ranks with her appointment as Shadow Minister for Youth Unemployment.
I asked her what IWD means to her:
“For me, it’s a day for celebration and contemplation. A worthy moment to pause and mark the progress we’ve made towards equality.
But it’s also a day to reaffirm our collective commitment for a better tomorrow. To focus the mind on a more equal and just Scotland and to share our energy, experiences and hopes with other sisters around the world for whom the march towards equality is only just beginning.
And when it comes to Scotland’s constitutional future, I hope that across the political spectrum we can unite today behind the shared belief that women’s voices must be at the heart of our country’s debate. The settled will cannot be set by men in suits alone.”
And I also asked Gail Lythgoe, as another of Scottish politics’ bright young things, what advice she might want to impart on International Women’s Day to young women about to enter adulthood. Gail is Convenor of SNP Students and is also on the party’s National Executive Committee. She’s intelligent and fiercely bright, as well as being statuesque and sunny and just an all-round lovely person. And we found out – rather bizarrely on twitter – that her aunt and I were at school together. Scotland the village indeed.
“When asked what advice I would give to a younger woman, I eventually came to the conclusion it would have to be: you probably have, or can gain, the skills; you just need to gain belief in yourself.
How many times have you noticed that you sit in a discussion or meeting and have had some thoughts buzzing through your mind and yet thought “someone else will put it better than me” or “the point probably isn’t even that relevant anyway”? I have experienced that all my life before I realised, only very recently, I should just say it. Later on, I’ve assessed it to have been relevant to the discussion and been glad I said it. Otherwise, much more confident folk, typically men, will tend to dominate discussions.
I noticed at a recent NUS Conference, that when the Education Secretary was being asked questions by the audience, there was only 1 female and plenty of males asking questions. And I wondered, how many young women were thinking and forming thoughts in that very room but not putting them into words?
My advice to young women is to be yourself and rather than judging yourself on those around you, to look at what really matters to you. For some reason, ambitious is a dirty word. It is only dirty if you make your intentions and actions dirty. Be motivated, strive to do your best, aspire for a better world and better you and be as determined as you want.
Examine your belief in yourself. Where do you want to be? And how can you get yourself there?”
I also put the same question to Shelagh McKinlay who tweets as @Shequeen and blogs at the Absurdist as well as on the Herald’s online political pages. Her parliamentary sketches are laugh out loud funny; indeed, she’s one of the best and most witty writers/bloggers I know and I’m delighted to have got to know her a little, thanks to twitter.
“What would I tell young women heading for adulthood today? In many ways I’d give them the same advice as I’d give to young men. Respect yourself. Respect others. Work hard. Invest in a good bra.
Young people face many of the same challenges regardless of gender and we must hope that future generations of men and women will work together to keep building a better society. But some things are different for girls. Sexism still exists, it is not a figment of the imagination of middle-aged feminists like me.
The freedom women have today was hard won and, unfortunately, cannot be taken for granted. I’d tell them that they therefore shouldn’t be complacent or accept second best. Protecting our freedom involves fighting your corner and being what some might term “difficult”. I’d tell them not to worry about that. I’d tell them that too many young women, and I was one of them, worry too much about being liked for the wrong reasons – for being biddable and uncomplaining and not saying “No”. I’d tell them saying “No” is fine if you have good reason and that if people don’t like it, that’s their problem.
I’d tell them to forget about being “good” and concentrate on being decent. I’d tell them to celebrate the fact that they live at a time when they have so much choice and opportunity. Young women today do face difficult choices, but I’d still rather have their life than my grandmother’s.
Finally, I’d tell them to wear teeny tiny skirts and dance like crazy whenever they can, because one day the chance to do either may not come around so often.”