To the benefit of all.
It would have been May 1979 when I climbed the common stair in a block of flats in Edinburgh’s Hyvots’ district on the south of the city. It was not an area I knew well, the night was getting late, and there were far too many big dugs roaming about for my liking.
It didn’t help that, as SNP activists in the area, we were chiefly recognized by the Delboy Trotter yellow three wheeler Reliant Robin of Edinburgh South constituency agent, the much missed Kerr MacGregor.
I chapped the door, and eventually, it opened slowly and suspiciously. A woman glared at us: “Whit?”
My speech was prepared and I reeled it off for the umpteenth time that evening:
“Good evening! We’re here on behalf of your SNP candidate, Bob Shirley. Can I ask which way you intend voting in Thursday’s election?”
She looked around, as if for inspiration, then said, calmly and without any sense of irony:
“I couldn’t tell ye; my man’s not in. I’ll have to wait till he’s home to tell me.”
My partner on that canvass was an American. She had come to Scotland in the wake of dealing with the Viet Nam war fall out, the Kent State shootings, the riots of 68 and the Chicago Democratic Convention. I could feel her shaking as we reached the pavement:
“She has to wait for her husband to tell her how to vote??????”
It was a moment that crystallized my feelings; Scottish politics had a long way to go.
So when I write to welcome the launch today of the Women for Independence movement, I’m reaching back a long time to my first disquiet about the position of women in Scottish politics and, equally importantly, the effect on women of male attitudes and the loss to the whole political scene engendered by the imbalance in activism and, I suspected, voting.
That woman in Hyvots made the point clearly – but it was easy to take your eye off the ball. In our constituency, there were many redoubtable women activists – Mharie Srewart and Mari Roche come to mind, and at the younger end, Roseanna Cunningham was canvassing beside us. Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald had blazed some sort of trail, as had Margaret Ewing, but in every day politics, and not just in the SNP, Scottish politics was run by bruisers who were almost exclusively male, and, in the way they went about their business, stereotypically so.
The fight for equality of representation has gone on ever since, with highs and lows; the balance of female to male politicians has improved slightly but nowhere near enough. In fact, quotas aren’t the answer, because, however you process candidates, the fact remains that the way we do our politics is inimical to the approach that most women would normally take.
It’s not to say that men and women are stereotypes, but it seems that, when it comes to politics many men have difficulty in taking a balanced approach. Shouting, hectoring, bullying, threatening and, above all, posturing, have become de rigeur for many in the highest echelons of politics – and no party is immune from it. The path to political success is a far harder experience for women than for men.
And our political process loses richness and efficacy because of this. How can we claim democracy when half the electorate are not comfortable with the political world, when standing for council or parliament is a process far easier for men than women. Is it surprising that many female voters are turned off politics or fail to see it as relevant to them and their lives?
I am only too aware that, as a man writing about this issue, I could be seen as condescending or patronizing. Nothing could be further from my intentions. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am far from being a ‘new man’, though it’s not for want of trying.
However, what I do know is that when I survey the political scene, when I read the blogs and tweets and opinion pieces, it is nearly always those written by females – or those pieces that seem to me to be written from a female point of view – that I concur with and which inspire me.
Posts from the likes of Natalie McGarry, Kate Higgins, Carolyn Leckie, Gail Lythgoe, and many others, ring a bell with my views and concerns – in support for young people in poverty, education, social issues in general, and an approach that is both listening and empathetic, rather than confrontational and combatative. That is the politics that I aspire to – regardless of gender, and that is why, in all sincerity, I am absolutely delighted to see the launch of WomenforIndy today.
I hope it will mobilise women of all political creeds to get involved in politics, to discuss our future as a nation, and will empower them to take part in, modernize, and raise the effectiveness of our political process.
Sisters may be doing it for themselves – but it’s to the benefit of all of us.