Why is Westminster dominating Scotland’s debate?

A few weeks ago, Ian Davidson appeared on Newsnight Scotland to talk – ostensibly – about a report on the independence referendum compiled by Westminster’s Scottish Affairs committee which he chairs.

During the interview he accused Isobel Fraser and the programme of always seeing things through a Holyrood prism and referred disdainfully to the programme as Newsnat.  Isobel Fraser was, rightly, shocked, angry and indignant and despite demanding an apology, got none.  Davidson stuck to his guns.

While everyone was seeing red, I was laughing my socks off.  Not because of the slur on Isobel Fraser’s impartiality or journalistic ethics – that was unforgiveable – but because Davidson got what he came for.  A stairheid rammie that showed Davidson defending the interests of his constituency.

Not the voter one, but his parliamentary one. 

Since the inception of devolution, Scottish MPs – Labour ones mostly – have felt marginalised and sidelined.  The constitutional debate makes them very nervous, for it would remove them from the political landscape.  The Scottish Affairs committee’s central conclusion – that Scotland can have a referendum if it wants, but only the referendum Westminster wants it to have – simply states a constitutional truth. 

Yet – as the protagonists know – it’s all a bit more complicated than that.  However, as subscribers to the UK body, there is no way Scottish MPs are going to step aside for the laughable notion (in their eyes) of the sovereignty of the Scottish people.

Their role is a simple one:  to thwart further devolution and thereby, ensure their continued relevance and salaries.  Which is why when the Scotland bill went back down the road, replete with recommendations for further beefing up by a Holyrood committee led by a Labour MSP, this was ignored.  Attempts to introduce amendments adding the powers sought by all MSPs were rebuffed.  The Scotland bill we got was the one Westminster was prepared to give us.

What many Scottish MPs fail to grasp – because absence from the day to day of Scottish life, political or otherwise foments it – is that Scotland has changed.  The Scottish people are in a very different place politically, socially, economically and culturally than when they started out in politics.  Indeed, the very idea of the Nationalists running anything is still something Labour Scottish MPs in particular, struggle to get their head around.

Some of this doesn’t apply to the SNP’s MPs, but subtly, some of it does.  While they are much more comfortable with the idea that they are effectively abolishing themselves by advocating a referendum on independence and indeed, campaigning for a yes vote in it, and clearly are delighted that their party is running Scotland, some of their number have grown rather used to the Westminster way of doing things.  Gone native is the term whispered by some. 

And while they would deny it, they – or at least, the ones who have gone native – have acquired some of the other habits inculcated by the hothouse atmosphere of Westminster.  Including, albeit to a lesser extent, being stuck in a political timewarp.  Or at least, they adhere to and promulgate a political narrative that is utterly relevant to the context within which they ply their politics – which is to be fair, a bigger stage influenced by more than domestic considerations – but might seem somewhat aloof from the day to day concerns and thinking of Scots.

All of this is by way of preamble to ask why the SNP continues to promote the case for independence with UK politics and the Westminster view of things as the centre of its axis?  And why so much of the messaging is being delivered by the Westminster team?  To put it another way, who constitutes the SNP “leadership” these days?

If you look at how the SNP is framing this debate – or trying to – the language, the approach and the narrative hasn’t actually changed all that much from the case that was made in the 1980s and 1990s.  It is almost as though devolution never happened.  Thus, the premise is about Scotland becoming independent, when in actuality, we are talking, post devolution, about Scotland assuming more powers, indeed, all the powers other nation states have, to effectively run our country the way we want to.

Clearly the debate has to be about how Scotland would handle some of those powers, but does it always have to be about the ones that still sit with Westminster?  Wouldn’t Scots like to know more about what an independent Scotland might do with education if it had full fiscal autonomy?  About which powers matter the most (for it appears to have been assumed that where people need reassurance is on the issues currently reserved at UK level).

It also means that much of the debate is being had in a language and on messaging that I – and others I know – don’t entirely recognise.  Maybe one of the stumbling blocks to the Scottish people choosing independence is their fear of a loss of British identity, of the social union that has been much trumpeted.  But is that the best way to frame the discussion?  Or is that positing it in a way which suits Westminster, because it is a debate it and they can comprehend and respond to?

The current terms of engagement appear to be what the SNP leadership wants.  There was Alex Salmond making a flagship speech about broadcasting in an independent Scotland, here come the Westminster outriders with their opinion pieces and commentary – all of it very good – backing up what the main man has to say.  Newsnet Scotland ensures the official line is further spun and later this week, no doubt Joan McAlpine’s column in the Daily Record will provide further ballast.  In amongst it all, are the cyberNats blogging and tweeting furiously “the lines” that the hierarchy want put out there.

But by and large, the line spun – on broadcasting and other matters –  is the one the SNP was spinning decades ago.  And whisper it, it didn’t work then.  As many of those longstanding activists who have become MSPs can testify. 

In the intervening period, the SNP found a way of making its case, purely on the Scottish stage, in Scottish terms of reference. for the people of Scotland to trust in them, their policies, their approach and vote for them.  It worked.  And it was quite different from what is going on now.

Indeed, the voices of MSPs and indeed, Ministers are often missing from the current discourse, though some – along with other activists who can count their membership and support in decades rather than years – do engage, clearly relishing the return to their political equivalent of comfy old slippers.

It begs the question – why are they missing?  Why are they not doing more of the commenting and reinforcing of messaging? 

Which is not to suggest that there is some kind of split, the way there is in Scottish Labour.  No doubt it is all part of a plan. 

But I’m not sure it’s working and I’m not sure conducting Scotland’s debate on Westminster’s terms is going to convince Scotland to vote yes.  All it appears to be doing is giving the likes of Ian Davidson a relevance to the discussion he – and they – don’t deserve.



Sisters need to do it for themselves

First, we had the Yes Scotland launch where the Yes wimmin of Scotland were represented by Liz Lochhead, Lou Hickey and Elaine C Smith, who had to be beamed in by video from Cardiff.  Which, given her commitment over the years to the Scottish Independence Convention and the cause, was a bit of an insult that they couldn’t wait and hold the launch when she was in town.

Then, we had the analysis.  Both Scotland Tonight and Newsnicht had panels discussing the launch of the Yes campaign.  Sadly, the talkin’ heids – all seven of them – were grey, male ones.  Not a single woman in the entirety of Scotland to be found with a trenchant view or lancing insight to offer on any of it.  It’s scarcely credible.

Thank goodness, though, for Lesley Riddoch.  But why wasn’t she on the airwaves adding her tuppence worth? She was clearly around, writing and podcasting on it all.

Scotland Tonight decided another wee looky was in order last night, discussing the Yes Campaign’s harnessing of the might of social media and online tools to build its consensus.  Three commentators, three blokes.  And because some wimmin commented on this on twitter, we got the usual excuses.  Women might not be available; they don’t have much time to sort these things; just cos there’s a three person panel doesn’t mean we’re trying to represent the whole nation; there are lots of powerful women on the telly; we shouldn’t have quotas, but the best people for the job.

And I’ve nearly run out of responses.  I sit most of the time slack-jawed in wonder at this kind of thing, in 21st Century Scotland, when the biggest question ever to be put to the Scottish people is devoid, almost utterly, of female voices outwith the parties.

But of course, nearly run out doesn’t mean completely run out.

I think I had my first feminist thoughts when I was far too young to realise they were feminist, or indeed egalitarian.  I recall seeing my wee gran, all five foot nothing of her, dishing up the tea to a cast of thousands, a meal made out of nothing very much and watching her heap the men in her life’s plates up and give herself scarcely a tattie and a scraping of mince.  Time after time, I watched her do it.  She went without her fair share of square meals to give her menfolk more.

And each and every time I saw it, inside I blanched.  She worked just as hard as they did in a full time job and keeping the house, with darn little help from them – that was another feminist observation which I didn’t really understand at the time.

And I vowed never to do it myself, but of course I did.  When we lived on benefits, I regularly used to just make the big chicklet’s tea and eat his leftovers.  Women and mothers across the globe have been doing it for centuries:  going without so their weans don’t.

But all the time, burning inside with the injustice of it and remembering my gran spending a lifetime doing it and vowing not to, any longer than I had to.

So, a feminist since I was old enough to yap basically.  All the way through life, I’ve seen it:  women being  excluded and marginalised, for the pure and simple fact they are women.  And here we are, on the run-in to our big constitutional moment, and the men who run things – parties, media, debates – are keeping it all cosy for themselves.  If we didn’t have the estimable Nicola Sturgeon as Depute SNP leader, I doubt we would be hearing a female voice promoting independence at all.

Which is not to say that the SNP, the Greens, the SSP and indeed, the cause do not have some great female proponents, because they do.  And in particular, when I stray far from the SNP crowd – which is often these days – nothing reins me in more than sitting with some of the fine women of the SNP – those who have beat the drum for decades – and listening to their views on it all, on their journey and what they believe in.  Frankly, more of them, telling their personal stories, in their own words would do much to make the emotional and practical case for a Yes vote, sadly lacking right now.

And because there are two sides to every coin, there’s plenty room for female Naysayers too.  I’d just like to hear a different tone, reason and cadence in this debate.

Even though we are in the campaigns’ earliest days, one thing has become clear.  The sisters can not rely on the blokes to invite them in.  We’ve tried tapping on their door politely;  we’ve even called ahead to check they were in.  And their response has been to turn the lights off and sit in the dark and hope we’ll go away before too long.

So it’s time for positive action, to demand a say in this debate.  And while we’re at it, to demand our share of seats at other tables too.

Which is why I hope Jenny Marra MSP’s amendment to the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) bill proposing 40% quotas on police and fire boards for women succeeds.  Not quite full equality, but it’ll do.  It’s a start.  Which is why feminists everywhere – men and women – need to lobby their MSPs to support it.

Because once we’ve got 40% on these public boards, there’s nothing to stop 40% – and higher- female representation on other public bodies.

Just in case it doesn’t happen, we can always follow the Norwegian route and put a law in place requiring it to.  Norway’s gender quota – a laboratory for the advancement of women, if you like – means that 40% of the seats on boards of market-listed companies have to be filled by women.  And get this:  the sky has not fallen in.

Of course, we don’t have the power to do this in Scotland.  Yet.

In the meantime, we can require it for public appointments to quangoes and the like, and there would be nothing to stop a member’s bill in this regard.

And for me, these are the sorts of reasons to vote yes to independence.  So, we can insist upon equal representation here, there and everywhere.  And where by virtue of a written constitution, 50-50 becomes the norm.

It will be a start – a very important one – to creating an equal society and economy.  One where women no longer have to go without and do without.  One where women are seen and most definitely heard.

Why?  Because if half of the population is excluded, we simply don’t have the best people.

Wanted: burdz for Newsnight Scotland

Anyone who watches Newsnight Scotland – or #newsnicht as it is fondly referred to on Twitter – may have noticed that there is usually a dearth of burdz (or women to give us our Sunday title_ on the programme.

Aside, that is, from the regular presence of Isobel Fraser as a presenter, who does a very fine job of subtly using her lilting tones to skewer politicians and others with laser like accuracy.  Her style is way different from the bombastic one of co-presenter Gordon Brewer, who has spent years modelling himself on Jeremy Paxman and largely failing to land a blow.

The issue is particularly acute when the programme arranges one of its talking head panels, to comment on and discuss a topical issue or featured news piece.  Whenever a topical political issue is front and central – which is often – commentators such as John Curtice, Gerry Hassan, John McTernan, Bill Jamieson, Euan Crawford and Iain McWhirter are assembled, either in the studio or by feed from Edinburgh/Dundee/London/Aberdeen to contribute their views.  Which is not to denigrate nor belittle the contribution they all make, for they are all fine people for such activity.  I’d just prefer if room could be found – not occasionally, but regularly – for women commentators too.

Throughout the recent Scottish election and now as we embark on the fourth Scottish Parliamentary session, it would appear that only men are deemed intelligent enough and suitably articulate and erudite to offer the nation an opinion on the weighty matter of the day.  I am scratching my memory cells to try to recall which, if any, women have appeared on such a panel in recent months and only one comes to mind:  Joyce McMillan.

The latest example was on Monday night when BBC Scotland had secured exclusive access to analysis into the Scottish election results.  It was a very important programme examining voter attitudes and shifts in voter behaviour in the May election.

The news piece was compiled and introduced by Kenneth Macdonald, it featured interviews with report authors, Professor James Mitchell, Dr Rob Johns and Dr Chris Carman.  These latter two authors were also on the panel, along with Euan Crawford, and John McTernan from London.  If it had been a Brewer night rather than a Fraser one, we would have had a male clean sweep.

Well, the burd is mightily fed up with this state of affairs and at the prompting of others who feel similarly, is inviting views on the issue.  Does it bother you?  I’m guessing the regular male commenters on this here blog who get annoyed whenever I try to raise gender imbalance issues will say no but I live to be pleasantly surprised!  It would be good to hear others’ views as well though.

And if you are bothered, what do you think we should do about it?  Petition the BBC? Send emails of protest every time it happens?  Make a complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission that BBC Scotland is in breach of its equality duty – or would that frivolise the seriousness of such powers?

Most importantly of all, which women would you like to see grace the screens of Newsnight Scotland to discuss and debate the weighty – and sometimes not so – political, economic and topical issues of the day?

Oh and here is probably the divisive one – does it matter that in the main, only men are invited to talk about Things That Matter on Scotland’s flagship serious news programme?  Would having more women on panels mean different things are said or views are given?  Or is it just about ensuring that the over 50% of the population who might have a view on such things are appropriately represented, whether or not their opinion differs?

Post your thoughts on the comment thread below, email them to burdzeyeview@hotmail.co.uk or tweet them to @burdzeyeview.  I will add them as updates to this here blogpiece over the next few days.

And if I have totally misjudged the “mood of the nation” on this one and no one cares enough to share their thoughts?  Well, I’ll don my pinny and the next blogpost will be on baking.  You have been warned….