What a panic’s in their breastie!

What a different two (or three actually) polls make.

First, the Panelbase poll conducted by the Yes campaign shows a record high of 47% support for independence among women with the gender gap virtually closed.  Hurrah for us!  And especially Women for Independence who right from the onset – even before Yes Scotland was formed actually – realised that women would take longer to make their minds up, that women needed to be listened to rather than talked at in this campaign and be offered space beyond traditional political hierarchies in which to engage. Our instincts have proven to be spot on.

Second, the sensational YouGov poll for the Sunday Times putting Yes ahead for the first time in the campaign.  It’s a slender 2 points but the momentum is all ours.  A wiser owl than me told me of recent Irish referenda experience.  In each and every one, the vote started shifting in the last few weeks.  Once it does, it doesn’t stop: all the other side can hope to do is slow down the shift enough to prevent it reaching the finish line.  It looks like the efforts the No campaign have made in the last week to achieve this have failed.

But hard hats on and heads down (though our tails are clearly up).  To coin a phrase, there is no room for complacency.  There’s a lot to do and everyone who wants to see Yes win the day on 18th September must redouble their efforts, continuing to target the key voter groups of Labour supporters, working class voters, women and people aged under 40.  According to Peter Kellner at YouGov, these are the voters who have shifted the most in the last few weeks.  Everyone in local Yes and grassroots groups must focus on reaching more of them, each and every day between now and the 18th.

As for the No campaign?  Well, you can promise jam today, jam tomorrow and jam the next day but it won’t wash.  Like dodgy market traders with a palette of shop-soiled goods to offload before they perish, they are frantically trying to cobble a “more devo” offer together.

Like the offer they should have allowed to go on the ballot paper from the start.  Or even the offer they should have made months ago.

But then, they promised us more devo at the start of this campaign.  And Messrs Naw, Nay and Never managed to come up with competing claims that amounted to a begrudged attempt to hold on to as much as they can and give away as little as they thought they could get away with.  Who’ll believe them now? The Scottish people are not buying I’m afraid.

The hard hats are needed because we are also going to be assaulted with an aerial bombardment of fear and smear like no other.  The British establishment is fighting for its continued grasp on power and control.  The Labour party is fighting for its very political existence in Scotland, if not elsewhere.  David Cameron is possibly fighting for his job.  What is about to rain down on us will be unprecedented in its severity, weight and virulence.  So this is a time for cool heads, calm hearts and onwards, forever onwards.  One doorstep at a time.

That’s presuming of course that they can stop fighting like ferrets in a sack.  It’s already started.

Unnamed backbench Conservative MPs have started calling for Cameron’s head on a plate:  “If Lord North went in 1782 for losing the American colonies, I can’t see how Cameron can stay, frankly.”  Note the language there:  it betrays how they really view Scotland.

Cameron is being blamed for allowing Alex Salmond to out-strategise him by one former Minister, especially on the timing of the referendum.  Again, betraying that they understand nothing of what is going on in Scotland right now.

And also, that it is still all about them.  Secret talks are apparently being held to force a leadership contest by parachuting Boris in through a parliamentary by-election.  The calculations on what happens if Scotland votes yes are all about shoring up their rump and being in a position to hold onto their seats at the UK election in 2015.

But the Tories are not just fighting among themselves – they’re turning their fire on their erstwhile Naw partners, Labour.  Apparently, it’s all also Labour’s fault for failing to deliver its vote.  Which again mistakes that this is about parties and even, as I opined here, that Labour has a core vote these days in Scotland.  The Scottish Tories are rock solid – but then that was to be expected.  It’s Labour whose support is haemorraghing.

Poor Douglas Alexander is the one coming under fire with particularly nasty personalised attacks.  Why him?  He isn’t the leader of Better Together – Alistair Darling is.  Many other Labour figures, including Scottish ones, have played much more senior roles.  The attacks on him whiff of jealousy, of score settling and of seeing off his credentials as a Labour leadership contender.  Yet, if any senior Labour figure has tried to create a positive narrative for the Naw lot, it’s him.  At various points, he’s been pushed out of the picture by others jostling to lead the front line.  With very few following his messaging.  Why?  Because they all thought this would be a skoosh and it was a platform for them to see out their twilight years basking in shared glory or from which to jettison them into the limelight and potential leadership roles. It seems to me that he and Brown are the two working their hardest to retrieve the situation.

But therein lies part of the problem.  For all that Gordon Brown is still a respected political figure in Scotland – and revered by the media to embarrassingly gauche levels – he is still yesterday’s man.  He may understand UK politics but having served his entire career on that stage, he is out of touch with the dynamic of Scottish politics.  He – and others – do not get us anymore.  That is at the heart of their problem.

As it is for the whole Naw movement, as Rory Stewart – he of the failed attempt to create hands across the border and build symbolic cairns and other irrelevant nonsense – attests. “A Yes vote would represent a failure of the entire political class. I think it’s the greatest constitutional issue we have faced for 300 years and it has not been treated like that. In the 19th century, this would have been like the great reform act. It would have engaged the whole nation and its politicians for years.”

Yet, the debate that Scotland has been having has been like our own great reform act, our own democratic renewal, with people of all ages enthused, engaged, debating and deliberating.  It has captured our imaginations and our attention.  The whole nation has been enthralled.  If the rest of the UK (but primarily England, for this is what they mean when they say “we”) failed to notice, or care, or contribute positively, that’s its problem.

But “we” as Scotland, as a nation, have awoken and to tar us with the brush of indifference is inaccurate and unfair.

Our political class – on the Yes side at least – have not been found wanting.  There is no failure of leadership here.

But it’s not actually about them.  What has happened in Scotland isn’t about them, but about us.  All of us.

There’s no failure, simply success.  To get to where we are today, with Yes leading by two points twelve days before the vote, having had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us from on high by the British establishment, big business, world leaders, the UK Government, the British media, rich people with deep pockets, and all those with their hands currently on the levers of power, is little short of astonishing.

It’s not a failure but a triumph.  Of the will of the Scottish people to stand up and say no more.  No more waiting.  No more empty promises. We want this one opportunity to create a better life for everyone who lives here.  And most especially of all, we want the chance to create a better future for our children, our grandchildren and the generations yet to come.

 

 

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Peeling the Bill Walker onion

There are so many layers to the Bill Walker story, it’s like peeling an onion.

Of course, he should never have been a parliamentary candidate, never mind an MSP. But somehow he got through. That should give the SNP and the other political parties pause to consider the rigour of their selection procedures, so that they might be certain that they do all they can to minimise the risk of future Bill Walkers. Given what we know now about his behaviour and refusal to accept responsibility for his actions, a modicum of value-based interviewing, of setting up scenarios to test the approach and attitude of aspiring parliamentarians would surely have found him out. A little less focus on the party credentials of putative candidates and a dollop more on the person and their characteristics before them might result in quite different people coming forward and being chosen to stand.

There are suggestions that some folk in the SNP knew about him much earlier than when he came to the attention of the Sunday Herald and subsequently, the police. There’s already an indication that journalists intend to pursue this line of enquiry, as well they might. The Sunday Herald’s Tom Gordon is already on to it, though his twitter- and door-stepping of someone who had just lost their mother was unedifying. I’m not sure Bernstein would have approved.

But if it is to avoid a witch-hunt led by the slavering political pack, roared on by opportunist opposition MSPs, the SNP needs to take ownership of the situation. The party needs to announce an internal inquiry, investigate every nook and cranny, uncover every layer of who knew what and when. And be seen to do so.

At the very least, it owes the women whom Bill Walker abused physically and emotionally, one while still in her teens, an explanation. The party does not need to lay bare its findings for media edification but if it finds itself wanting, to own up and say what it is doing to change that. And put the onus back on other parties to do likewise: after all, they all have their own bodies they’d like to remain buried.

We must not allow the media to become Witchfinder General as a result of the Bill Walker situation.  Unless we want the parliamentary equivalent of the Stepford Wives. Because Holyrood comprises people, there are bound to be others with stuff in their past, they’d rather we all didn’t know. They are, after all, just like the rest of us. Many of us have life experiences we work hard to forget but those experiences tend to make us who we are, if we have bothered to learn from them.  We are all fallible and gullible;  we can all be vulnerable to the most venal of emotions and actions and actually, we need a legislature which reflects life’s rich tapestry. The alternative is too awful;  indeed, many of us already bemoan just how many professional politicians with no experience of life outside the party presently occupy the parliamentary benches here and in that other place.

The issue is whether there are some like Bill Walker in denial about their current behaviour.  Had the man showed any remorse and responsibility for his actions, had he talked openly about his abusive nature and what he had done since – anger management classes, mediation, therapy – to control his behaviour and create different relationships, had he even pled guilty and spared his abused ex-wives the pain and trauma of having to relive their experience in open court, then our reaction might have been different.  Yet, right to the last, he has continued to blame others for his actions: he is resigning not because he is a convicted abuser of women and children but because the media onslaught made it impossible to continue.

His offensive behaviour continues in the present and he has no place in parliament.  Just as there might well be others whose antics in their personal life run contrary to the grain of public policy and what society has deemed to be acceptable.  Clearly this is tricky territory but the parties are duty bound to have a long hard look at their current crop of parliamentarians and assure themselves – and us – that there are no more Bill Walkers in their midst.  Not for what they might have done before and atoned for, but for what they are doing presently.

That might sound and seem harsh but the Scottish Parliament too requires to provide for anyone struggling with demons. Does it offer a confidential counselling service which MSPs might use?  Does it acknowledge that it has a duty of care to members and their staff?  Is there even a whistle-blowing service for staff who because of the nature of their work might uncover stuff about their bosses they don’t know what to do with and might not feel able to share with their parties?

What duty of care does the Scottish Parliament recognise to Bill Walker’s staff? They will lose their jobs from this;  chances are, given his refusal to acknowledge wrong-doing, that he wasn’t the most pleasant of bosses to work for. He possibly verbally abused and bullied them. Is someone somewhere offering and providing them with support if they need it?

The same applies to the women who bravely came forward to relive their experiences in court, to see justice done. Those who work in this sphere know from what women and children tell them, that the experience of giving evidence in court can be like being abused all over again. Until court proceedings are concluded, there is a sense of life on hold and afterwards, they are all too often left on their own to pick up the pieces. That’s where organisations like Scottish Women’s Aid and the Rape Crisis Centre come in – one hopes that someone has put the women involved in touch with them.

There is always the potential for good to come from a terrible situation like this.  We haven’t had a focus on domestic abuse and violence in the home for a while. It’s there or thereabouts but in recent years, Holyrood has got rather good at congratulating itself at how well we address and respond to this social ill. Yet, the statistics suggest we’re not doing nearly enough. Cases are rising, and worryingly, there are increasing numbers of young people affected, but convictions remain stubbornly low.  A parliamentary inquiry seems timely to explore the issues, what we are doing and what we might want to do differently.

There is great work out there focusing on prevention, to encourage the next generation in particular, to form healthier relationships – it would be good to showcase this and ensure that it is adequately resourced. But as with alcohol, there’s a need for Scotland to tell itself a few home truths, and that is that there are far too many families across the spectrum in Scotland where violence – in deed and discourse – is the norm.  Until we are prepared to acknowledge collectively that we have a problem, we are still far from finding a solution.

In the meantime, there’s a by-election to be prepared for. For the anoraks, the jockeying has already begun with speculation over who might be candidates. There is a suggestion that Labour will field an all-woman shortlist and at least one woman’s name is circulating as a possible SNP contender. Who knows, might the Lib Dems tempt Sarah Teather to come northwards?

Already some are agreed that it would make for a powerful symbol for all the candidates in this contest to be women. And already, this suggestion has been met with the tedious response that the candidates should be the best people for the job.  Just as Bill Walker clearly was, then.

But this by-election allows our political system to say something meaningful to the people of Dunfermline in particular and to Scotland more generally, that there is no place for violent abusers in our Parliament or indeed, anywhere in our society,  but plenty of room for more strong, impressive women. Indeed, some of us are even prepared to campaign across party lines to achieve such an outcome.

What do I know about the role of the media on the road to the referendum?

Earlier this year, I took part in a panel debate about the role of the media in the referendum debate at Dundee university.  And in a Scottish Constitutional Forum one on its future at the Scottish Parliament.

On Tuesday, I’m a last minute blow-in to the panel in the Sunday Herald sponsored series of chats about the Road to Referendum.  At the end of the month, I’ll be at the Scottish Parliament’s Festival of Politics talking about the power of social media (and deftly demonstrating my lack of nous on this subject with my failure to embed the Verb Garden flyer in this post).

RtoR flyer

I’m as confused as you are.  I’m not quite sure what credentials folk think I have, but I’ll settle for interested consumer, occasional bit-part contributor and dabbler and woman.  This last qualification is probably, sadly, the most germane.  We are not overly blessed with pro-independence female media types who perch precariously astride the message fence. I can usually be relied upon to say what I think, having a little knowledge on a lot of stuff, more opinions than is probably healthy and the luxury of representing only myself on such occasions.

Having done the odd gig in the last year or two, I’ve realised some of the reasons for this lack (though having worked in and around the field for decades, I always sort of knew anyhow).  Participating in live studio blethers and dust-ups is not conducive to family life.  Doing these things involves getting out of bed at a ridiculously early hour or setting out from home late evening and most women I know have other responsibilities at these sort of times.  Unless they are in the freelance journalist bracket and gamely trying to make a living out of it (and a supportive other half), they usually also have other jobs to attend to.

Partly this is the nature of the beast, though there’s an element of aye been as well.  And also of broadcasters – just like the press – being way behind the curve in terms of embracing technology to improve flexibility, access and reach.  This is way beyond my ken, though that’s never stopped me before, but I do wonder at how static and lumbering our mainstream media is compared to new kids on the block.  Go to any end of year university showcase of work by meeja students and you will be awestruck at what they achieve on shoestring budgets, cheap kit and an abundance of ideas.  Women are just as involved as men.

So what happens to all that in the journey to the mainstream?  By dint of how they go about their business and how they make their product, the mainstream media makes it hard for women to participate and despite technology, the problem seems to be getting worse.

There are promising signs.  STV in particular, with its local and online platforms, as well as its approach to Scotland Tonight, which integrates different media channels and invites lesser known suspects on to its sofas to talk about a broader range of topical issues, appears to have a plan and it’s working. And in response to girning from the likes of me, BBC Scotland was stung into action last year to try and balance the gender on its talking head slots on the likes of Newsnicht.

But better does not mean great. Or equal.

The fact that the BBC didn’t think it had/has a problem is of course, a big part of the problem.  Until the lack of women being invited along to comment and participate was pointed out publicly to them, did the programme controllers and Head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland never broach the issue at planning meetings? Do editorial conferences at our broadsheets not bother to factor in the need to hear the opinions and views of representatives of half the population on a regular basis?

Maybe it’s just me, but I find it incredible that those what make the programmes and fill the pages never stop to think what might be missing when they survey all male editions and panels.  And indeed, ones dominated by well-educated men from white, middle class backgrounds and outlooks. Scotland is a diverse, mongrel nation, though you’d never realise it if your only source was the male, pale and stale demographic of our mainstream media.

Then there’s what is considered to be newsworthy.  Scan the online headlines and the social media feeds today and the only political story in town is Andrew Marr’s comments about perceived anglophobia as a consequence and by-product of the independence debate.  Now, I liked Mr Marr as a political correspondent.  He makes for an interesting interviewer and TV presenter, even a passable historian.  I was as shocked as anyone at his sudden ill-health and am delighted to see that he is back, well on the road to recovery.

But.

This is the media – the male-dominated, political media – eating itself.

And that too is part of the problem. The political media likes to report stories about the referendum which bear little relevance and carry scant interest to the population at large.  Including, if not especially, women.  And much of it is contributed by members of their ain ilk or from the political commentariat/intelligentsia.  Chattering classes are us: I am happy to acknowledge that for all my pretensions otherwise, I probably qualify as a paid up member.  Though it was only by setting up this blog that I breached its defences.

It’s a bit of an unvirtuous circle.  The more the media ignores what might interest women, the less they will tune in or buy the product, and the less money there is to invest in diversification, so the more reliant does the media become on its own ranks to fill the void.  Devolution reinforced the narrowness of our political discourse and the road to the referendum is amplifying it.  The result is that politics – and this most important political decision in our, our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes – is an adjunct to daily life, tucked away in the unsocial hours slots and sections, rather than being a staple of our daily viewing and reading lives.

So what to do?  Having chipped away at issues like this, on and off for decades now, progress has been either fleeting, painfully slow or largely non-existent.  I’ve grown intolerant of incremental change.  Pleading, campaigning, cajoling and persevering has delivered diddly squat.  Confidence and self-belief have atrophied under devolution: the cringe is alive and well in a community near you.  That applies to the media as much to more pernicious social ills like poverty.

I’ve been an independence supporter all my life and increasingly am of a utilitarian bent.  Scotland needs the big bang of a yes vote and a rush of change before the dust settles.  A written constitution that provides rights and responsibilities – to expression but also to equality – will help.  And we need people prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel to fashion a new Scotland, a different Scotland which bears little resemblance to the current one.

So, all you media types who use the cloak of owner and editorial preference, dalliance and orders to hide your true colours and feelings?  Well, your country will need you post independence.  Therein lies your chance to shape and make the media environment which befits a modern, outward looking nation with aspirations to be if not the best wee country in the world, then a darn sight better than what we have now.  One where women’s participation is a given.

And if you want to hear me ruminate some more on this or as might well happen, witter on about something else altogether, get yourself along to the Verb Garden on George Street in Edinburgh on Tuesday.  Though more likely than not, I’ll be mostly hanging on the every word of my more esteemed and erudite panellists – Lesley Riddoch, Richard Walker, Magnus Linklater, Kevin McKenna and chair, Iain McWhirter.  And wondering why on earth I was invited.