From there to here

Today, some 200 women, mainly from the Lothians, will gather for a conference. There’s still time to join us.

And I’ve been asked to explain how we got from there to here. The truth?  I don’t know.

So let me set out what I do know.

Today’s Women for Independence conference has been organised by a handful of resourceful, redoubtable women. Most of them have never organised anything more than a family do before, never mind a conference for hundreds of women, lasting all day, with keynote speakers including Scottish Government Ministers, MSPs, Directors of national organisations, leading journalists, authors – all of them women and not all of them supporters of independence.

To say it’s been a stressful experience is probably an understatement. I’ve organised big events like this: they are a nightmare; a canvass of tiny detailed threads, which just as you think you’ve got it all neatly tied off, begins to unravel at crucial parts. But they have been amazing. And this small group of women approached the task with little fear and huge reserves of enthusiasm. They won’t realise it yet, but they have brought their life skills to bear and today will be a resounding success. Because of them.

And that there, in a nutshell, is how Women for Independence got from there to here.

Where is there? Well it all started with Carolyn Leckie, whose idea this was, way back at the turn of the year in 2012. She and I met in late January to discuss it: it was a brilliant idea to try to bring like-minded, independence supporting women together to do their own thing, to make a contribution in their own way to the nascent Yes campaign.

We met again at the end of March. She brought a few pals, I brought a few and ten of us ate, drank a bit and of course, the more wine we had, the more it all seemed like the best idea we’d ever had. A planning day in April/May at the Pearce Institute in Govan brought in a handful more women and we spent that time setting out a plan. Who would we be, what would we aim to achieve, how might we do that. And that plan, more or less, sustained us right through from 2012 to the referendum in 2014.

We would embark on a listening exercise – we had to try and work out what women thought. Our long collective history of political campaigning meant we knew that the official campaigns would struggle to reach women and women would be much more cautious about voting Yes, slower to convert to the idea.

In July, we set out aims and a sort-of constitution. We decided to officially launch in September 2012. We created a website; we launched with just over 100 women supporters and remarkable media interest.

We listened and we shared. We went on the marches and rallies. We made our presence known. We grew.

We challenged the male-dominated refrain which was already beginning to corral this debate within conventional headlines and narratives. We insisted women be invited to participate, in meetings, on media panels, in debates. We were challenged back – one of you come then.

From the beginning, we attracted women who had never before been involved in any political activity before. The appetite for local activity grew and groups were encouraged or simply sprung up on their own. By the end of the referendum campaign, there were over 60 that we knew of.

Edinburgh’s was slow to get going. After a series of false starts, a meeting was held in a space – not even a room – in the National Library on George IV Bridge. The organisers expected a handful to show: over 40 did. We agreed to focus on “adding value” to already organised Yes activity. Women for Independence started supporting the Super Saturdays, canvassing woman to woman, setting up street stalls to allow women to engage with us, organising drop-ins for local women in local cafes. It worked.

We were on panels everywhere. We talked in groups, in one to ones, to great big public meetings. Setting out the case why independence for Scotland was women’s best chance of having independence in their own and their children’s lives.

By being open, inclusive and welcoming, women got involved who had “never done this sort of thing before”. We supported Women for Indy national days of action by focusing on voter registration – doing school gates, outside where playgroups met, bus queues in areas where women (and indeed, men) traditionally did not vote. We stalked bingo halls – our free Yes dabbers – were scooped up by Yes and No alike. We kept going back, to the same areas, the same women, allowing them to move from No to Yes at their own pace. Our favourite day out was Porty prom, especially when the sun shined. Me and my Boy Wonder

In the summer, in common with groups all over the country, we delivered thousands of our leaflet, through letterboxes, directly into the hands of other women, many of whom didn’t want a Yes leaflet but took ours.

On the glorious, sunny Saturday before the vote, we had Elaine C Smith speaking back to back at meetings in Muirhouse and Craigmillar, encouraging women whom traditional politics had ignored ever since deigning to give them the vote, to choose hope and vote yes.

WFI cavalcade photo In between those meetings, we had a huge cavalcade of women in cars and vehicles criss-crossing the city’s schemes, with loud hailers, balloons and streamers, attracting well-wishers all the way.

And then it was all over. Or so we thought.

Since September 2014, Women for Independence, nationally and locally, has grown. A national conference of 1000 in Perth; over 3000 on our mailing list; over 80 women turning up to the first post-referendum planning meeting in Edinburgh; by Christmas 2014, Edinburgh’s Facebook group had doubled in size. And still they come.

With an appetite – a hunger almost – not to keep fighting the Yes No game but to campaign to change women’s lives. Right here, Right now. As we saw with the campaign to prevent a new women’s prison being built.

They want to learn. They want to know. They want different lives. They have taken out something stored away far deep within them, conditioned to believe that their roles are as nurturers, earners, deliverers, keepers, makers, managers, lovers, holding-it-all-together-ers, But only in a space where they can be controlled. And now they have found a political space for them where they can be all this and more, where they are in control and feel safe.

The referendum has awakened in many of them something of huge significance that none of us yet fully understands. That they do not have to be invisible. That they have skills and talents to contribute to the common weal. That they are worth something much more than society has decreed them so far.

And still they are more. Today there will be women attending who were not even involved at all in the referendum campaign – at least on the Yes side. Who have never done anything like this. Who are inspired and enthused and who will leave South Leith Parish Church even more so. Who will want to commune with other women, to keep on growing a movement, by women, for women,

By the end of March, 24 more such events will have happened, some big, some small; some political, some social; all created by women, for women. Engaging in their communities, reaching out, striving for change.

On 14 March, Women for Independence will hold its first ever AGM. Women members – nearly 1000 in less than a month – will vote for whom they want to represent them nationally. We are shifting from boundless, joyous, fractious organised chaos to begin the process of planting shoots and creating roots to ensure our continued growth.  It will still be boundless, joyous and on occasion, fractious.

We started there. We are now here.

We are Scotland’s fastest growing political movement. We are now focused – utterly – on working, on our own and with others, to push and prod at every opportunity for independence for Scotland’s women in every sphere of their lives.

We will give voice to those women who have rarely been listened to, ever. We will enable women to find their own voice and make it heard, We will raise our voices to make change happen, in small and big ways.

We came from there to here.  And we are not going anywhere but onwards.

En solidarité

The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.

Watching the last few days’ terrible and terrifying events unfold in Paris has been compulsive. The live filming of the siege on Friday seemed like an episode of Spiral, which made a welcome return to our screens last night. The shooting of 10 staff and associates at Charlie Hebdo and two police officers was shocking in its brutality, but also in the mundaneness with which armed terrorists were able to plan and execute such a terrible atrocity. Just like that.

You go to work like you do every other day, but today you don’t come home. Just like that.

The atrocity has prompted some outstanding journalism and leadership from newspapers, in particular. They always do cover such stories best, having the time and the keen sense of purpose with which to craft the right words. But perhaps, because it is the inky fingered lot whose freedom to express, to print all the news that’s fit to print, is so regularly threatened – sometimes by their own inability to adhere to the values of independence and non-bias which they maintain, matter so much – by regulation, by the removal of those rights, through owners’ patronage and personal proclivities; political interference; judicial tinkering.

I’ve read a lot that I’ve liked in Scottish newspapers since Wednesday. We are fortunate to have some fine journalists and writers working in our parts and our media culture would be lacking without them. Bravo et encore.

There has also been reflection and introspection about the nature of rights, the balance to be struck between and among rights and individuals’ right to exercise them.  Put crudely, whose trumps who’s?  The right of journalists and cartoonists to express themselves freely or the right of believers to worship their chosen faith free from intolerance and prejudice?  One thing on which we can all agree – no one has the right to kill anyone else to assert their beliefs over any individual, community or society.

And while it is good to be reminded of the point of human rights and why they are vital and fundamental to the well-being of a country, must it always be through adversity? Who in the UK thinks now that rights don’t matter?  Good. You might want to let your MP know then, as there’s a bill before Westminster proposing to remove our human rights and replace them with a bill of rights that creates a new constitutional framework for the UK. Whether it will allow us to continue to enjoy the same human rights as say, the French is as yet not clear.

Today France and indeed, Europe will come together in a show of solidarity, marking the murders in the way the French know best. By taking to the streets, exercising their collective freedom to assemble peaceably. Indeed, the populace will be aided and abetted in its efforts by the availability of free public transport and cut price travel from outwith Paris. Touché.

I am struck by the differences in how countries and societies display their public grief and demonstrate their shared sense of pain. After 7/7, plucky Britain and London kept calm and carried on.  Everyone back to work, business as usual. How a country mourns publicly after such a catastrophic event which touches everyone directly and indirectly says a lot about its culture and its belief system.

And sometimes it takes a terrible happening to be reminded of what matters in and to a society. Liberté. Fraternité. Égalité.

I’m sure many French people have taken a moment or two this week to reflect on these values and what they mean in a 21st Century country. When your country has touchstone principles as powerful as this, it’s vital to keep them alive. Sadly, it often takes death to remind us to do so. And to remember what matters – truly matters – in our everyday lives. It does no harm for us all to reflect a little.

On some levels, Scotland’s independence referendum attempted to hold a discourse on who we are, what we believe in and where do we want to go.  We all nodded – whatever side of the binary choice you ended up on – in agreement with notions of fairness and greater equality in our society.

In writing Generation Scot Y earlier this year, I analysed what young people in both camps were saying about their referendum choice.  What mattered to them and how were they articulating that.  The choice of language was remarkably similar:  young Yessers talked a lot about better, about fairer, progressive, opportunity, democracy and future, while young No campaigners also talked a lot about opportunities, choice, future, rights and things being better. A common language then, if not purpose at that time.

And at the end of it all, now we are out the other side, where stands Scotland? What has become of all that yearning for better, fairer and opportunity in our future? Can we find away to make the purpose fit the language? And does anyone even want to? We’re One Scotland no doubt but surely it takes more than trite messaging and imagery to make it so.

We may wish to engage in a little schadenfreude and nod to the rise of the right in France and a level of racism, intolerance and prejudice that does not exist in Scotland as reasons why it could never happen here. But France is a much more multi-cultural country than we are: not only was a Muslim police officer gunned down by Islamist extremists, but it was a Muslim employee in a Jewish supermarket who protected other shoppers, including a child. France has its issues but there is also much to learn from a culture which aims to assimilate and adopt a melting-pot approach to immigration and where identities – as they are in so many other countries today – multi-dimensional.

And today, we will watch – yes, in solidarity – as a nation mourns, as a nation gathers to remind itself of its founding principles and of what truly matters to its society, its sense of self and its well-being.  Je suis. Nous sommes.

We – I – will shed a tear and quietly, timidly ask how do we prevent this happening here –  happening anywhere – again. As Dani Garavelli points out in an excellent opinion piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, “days later, the indefensibility of the attack on Charlie Hebdo remains, but almost everything else is shadows and fog”.

We may wish to call on the wisdom of Robespierre in our search for some answers and a solution.

Steven Gerrard: hold your head up high

The 2005 Champions League final is the sort of football match which stays long in the memory. Liverpool were 3-0 down to A C Milan and managed to win on penalties after extra time.  If I remember rightly – and I’m sure some of the football nerds for whom detail is everything will keep me right – he didn’t start the game but came on at half time.  It was Gattuso’s foul against him which gave Liverpool their first goal back and the goal that Gerrard scored was one that seemed fuelled solely on passion and belief.  My recollection of that second half of football was that Gerrard more or less got his team back in the game and up for it. He was involved in every meaningful section of play right until the final whistle of extra time.  It was a quite astonishing performance.

And if you read the words – all the words – to You’ll Never Walk Alone, well, it’s almost as though it was playing on a loop in Gerrard’s head that night.

I remember when he was just starting out, as one of an exciting group of youngsters coming out of the youth system at Liverpool and into the senior game.  I recall the controversy over the decision to rest Gerrard because of growing pains at 19.  It was fascinating because of the debate which raged between old school – if he’s good enough, he’s old enough, let him play mentality – and the new school of sports science which suggested that if Liverpool played him more than they did, they could ruin his career and staying power.  I still have visual imprints of him as that gangly teenager, seemingly all limbs and floppy fringe but who even then, was the kind of player that when he got the ball made you hold your breath to see what would come next.

Gerrard was always an exciting player: the sort who made things happen on the pitch, whose contribution could and did change outcomes. But who, when out of sorts, all too often dragged his team down too.  That Liverpool side of the noughties was largely built around his midfield hub to make the most of his talents and his undoubted footballing brain.  Consequently, when he was on form, that team was wonderful to watch.  It zipped and sang, full of youth, vigour, vim and no end of talent.  And at the heart of it all, Gerrard and his ability to pivot and pass inch perfectly without even looking up, to track forward and back, to marshall, to shoot, to score, to organise, control and to apply deft and sublime touches, all often within the one segment of play. I loved watching him go to work. It was a thing of beauty.

His more lacklustre career for England has often been said to be down to successive managers not knowing how to incorporate him more effectively into their teams or simply make hard decisions about which midfielders to go with.  Pairing Gerrard with others neutralised his talent and skill.  The brave thing to do would have been to build around him rather than expect him to adjust his style and instincts to fit in with other egos in the centre of the field.

I’ve never had a sense of Gerrard having an over-inflated ego.  He seems to keep himself to himself off the field.  There has been little of the Chelsea cock of the walk stuff which Terry and Lampard often displayed.  And as a result, I think he lost out in the England set-up.  Imagine what might have been for that golden generation had even just one England manager in the last decade been brave enough to dump the rest and build around Gerrard.  Tweeting today, Humza Yousaf wishes Gerrard well but wonders if we can all now agree that Gerrard was one of the most over-rated players of the last decade.  For once, Humza, you’re wrong.  I don’t think he was ever actually rated enough, nor given his full due or opportunity to shine, at least on the national footballing stage.

But what Gerrard did share with his Chelsea colleagues was of being a rare thing in modern football, of being a one team man.  Gerrard is Liverpool through and through.  He’s been at the club for an astonishing 25 years. So, you can see why it mattered to him that they at least did not disgrace themselves in that 2005 final, out there on the world stage.  The reason why his contractual negotiations always seemed so tortuous is because deep down, he never wanted to move from Liverpool, even when managers were less inclined to keep him or thought they could use that commitment to the club to commercial advantage.  But the boy wasn’t daft either and knew his worth.

And if, as expected, he announces today that he is leaving Liverpool at the end of the season to go and finish his career in the US, well that tells us that his club still matters to him. He could have had a berth at one of the lesser English Premier League sides or even on the continent but that might have meant playing to beat his old side.

Going to the US is not just a head decision (for it will be lucrative) but also it would appear one of the heart. And for that alone, I like and admire him just a little more.

UPDATE: Just found this brilliant compilation video put together by LFC Entertainment.  I’d forgotten what a great two footed player he is. And just how many great goals he has scored.