Saturday, 20 June 2015

The misogyny of Twitter

It is an absolute privilege to represent a constituency and the people who live in it. This is the most important job I have had.

That said, the dominance of Twitter in political discourse is disproportionate. The media fixation on who says what and when is an incessant bore. Mhairi Black ate chips? Who cares? The House of Commons serve chips with dinners? Who knew? Who cares?

I have watched with interest the increase in the number of followers my fellow SNP MPs and I have had since the election, and the increase in vitriol.

I have personally had at least six accounts which have been written in my name which are abusive, sexist and misogynist. All have been removed by Twitter - which is a credit to them. I suspect they are all the work of the same sad individual, but that is by the by.

The creation of false tweets is a curiosity. To see a tweet ostensibly from me about cakes in the member's tea room was a conundrum. I don't like cakes, you see. I prefer crisps.

In some respects, part of the fault is mine for having engaged on Twitter in an open way for six years, and for being bolshy enough to have an opinion. But we need to have a chat.

It is simply unacceptable that any woman in politics or public life, or life in general for that matter, is subject to the kind of vile abuse that exists online. Despise my politics if you will, for that is democracy, but think you wound me with comments about my weight or my appearance? You don't. I don't really care.

What I do care about are the women who are currently sitting on the sidelines with incredible insight and opinions who are considering a political career but who are put off by the level of abuse aimed at women politicians.

There was a time when every cruel word wounded me, every dig and slight felt disproportionately. That was until the Labour Party demonstrated that they had been harvesting tweets of activists with a view to using at a future date - out of context - in a by-election. They also employed a poor young soul to scour my tweets to find anything they could use against me to discredit me. When they chose to tweet where I was sleeping at night, I lost patience.

Despite the media obsession with so-called "cybernats", there is a deliberate avoidance of the disgusting behaviour of the Labour Party. I cannot imagine the SNP ever thinking it appropriate to essentially stalk the online profiles of candidates to tell people where they sleep. If they did, my disapprobation would have no bounds.

The stalking of Shirley-Anne Sommerville on Twitter and demanding that a woman apologise for a male domestic abuser should have been indicative that there were no bounds that wouldn't be crossed. But I digress.

We are all - across all parties - trying to encourage more woman to politics. And there is need. The vast majority of austerity measures and Tory ideology impact on women. The huge fall in sex discrimination tribunals, universal credit, cuts to tax credits and a low minimum wage all hit women hardest.

Yet online, women in politics are subject to the most vile abuse. And there are journalists who are part of and encourage it. They should hold their heads in shame. The congratulatory little boy's club who egg each other on to make ever more audacious attacks on women in politics are a bore. They are also hugely unprofessional. Thankfully the vast majority of political journalists are professional and engage in a positive way. On that note, anyone who attacks them for doing their job should be also be criticised.

The studied ignorance of abuse of women in public life is something that needs addressed. How can we encourage more women to enter politics and share their experiences and knowledge when they view women in politics being criticised about appearance and weight?

How I do my job is a matter for my constituents. My weight, or appearance is none of anyone else's business. If you think it is yours, you are a tool.

Politics isn't a nice business. Nor is it a beauty contest, thankfully.

And Twitter isn't a necessity for politicians. Our job isn't to answer every disgruntled or abusive tweet that exists online. There are people in real need who we all engage with by email and in person at surgeries that form the most important part of what we do.

So if the media insist on Twitter being the conduit for political discussion, let them tackle sexism and misogyny head on. Until they do, any articles about what happens in a bubble online will be meaningless.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Here's Maggie Thatcher - Politiciser of the Playground

“Here’s Maggie Thatcher, throw her up and catch her. Squish her, squash her, squish her, squash her, here’s Maggie Thatcher” was a ditty which formed part of the soundtrack to my playground experiences of the mid-eighties. It was accompanied by some creative pen work and hand movements. The children of the eighties, the playgrounds of the eighties, were political in a way I am not sure we shall ever see again.

I met someone recently who was also a child of the eighties – in a completely different area of the country – who also knew the ditty.  It was a shared remembrance of invention, of ingenuity, but also a sad indictment of the despair in many Scottish households which imbued children with political hue and awareness which is unparalleled today. Where the ditty originated, I don’t know and I am not sure I want to.  It is a childhood memory which needs no clarification of retrospect, but it is a telling one.

The myth, the legacy, the damning toll of Thatcherism will live on. That the children of the nineties, who were born with Major, and grew up with Blair, are still shaped by their attitude to Margaret Thatcher – especially in Scotland - says much about the attitudes of their parents and their peers, but also indicates that, love her or loathe her, she created herself a legend. And those who protested against her lionised her.  They gave her a status which no other prime-minister of the twentieth century – with the exception of Churchill – could claim. Demonised by some, idolised by others.

I am a child of the eighties. I remember Thatcher.  I distinctly remember Thatcher.  Thatcher helped shape my childhood and the ideology I have as an adult. Of course, my attitude to Thatcher was a reflection of my parents’ attitudes at that point in time, but I have encountered no other considerations since to inform a change of opinion. 

My parents were political.  They became political as a reaction to societal and political events.  My mum joined the SNP in 1966 at the age of 14 with her sister Maureen who was a year older. Their father – my grandfather – was an Irish miner. They grew up in relative poverty in Fife. My grandfather, John was an Irish immigrant whose father was a Labour councillor in the south of Ireland. He was a member of the Scottish wing of the Labour Party and he campaigned for them. He once presented me with a Parker pen which had been given to him by Gordon Brown.  It was a treasured item of his. 

My mother and Maureen became aware, through their voracious appetite for knowledge and books, of the history of Scotland, of the potential of Scotland, and of the relative imbalance of being governed by a Westminster which was not Scotland focussed. It was a love affair which was to last a lifetime for my Aunty Maureen and a vision which my mother still works toward as an SNP councillor of 27 years standing. 

In the sixties, however, becoming members of the SNP was more than frowned upon.  My grandfather wouldn’t even display a poster for my mother when she stood against Gordon Brown during the eighties.  Miners’ daughters from Cowdenbeath did not join a nationalist party. They withstood that familial disapprobation and their legacy is a family of younger sisters – like my aunt Tricia Marwick - and their brother, and all their many kids and nieces and nephews, and now grandkids, who share their vision of a Scotland governed by the people of Scotland with social justice, fairness and equality at its heart.

My father was less of an emotional nationalist. He is a pragmatist. From Fairhill in Hamilton, he met and married my mother in 1974 but remained a Labour voter until 1979.  He was a devolutionist and was blindly confident that the Labour Party would deliver on a devolution settlement in the referendum in 1979.  To watch it drafted to fail and torpedoed by elected members of the party he had respected and voted for, and which his gradfather had represented as an elected member, hardened his attitude toward a different constitutional settlement.  Clearly, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives could be relied upon to bring democracy closer to the people of Scotland. When my father embraced independence and the SNP he did not look back, only forward to the future potential of an independent Scotland. There is no-one as passionate as a convert.

He was wrong, Labour did deliver devolution 20 years later, but in the meantime Thatcher changed the landscape of Scotland irrevocably both physically and politically and forever designating large industry and traditional employment to the scrap heap and she privatised national industries allowing public wealth to flow freely in to the hands of the few. This entire she achieved without a mandate from Scotland which confirmed the correctness of his decision to back independence and the SNP. 

Thatcher the anti-devolutionist would have little idea in 1979 that the actions which she took in office would so harden Scottish attitudes against the Conservatives so that from a high of 22 MPs when she was elected in 1979 they led to the complete eradication of all Tories in Scotland a few months after she was forced from office. She would have no idea that she set in motion the rise of the SNP. Or that less than a year and a half after her death there would be a referendum on Scottish independence. She also, probably, didn’t foresee she would be stabbed in the back by her Tory peers and humiliatingly be driven from office, but that is by-the-by. 

And who would have thought during the eighties that the SNP would be here, holding a referendum on Scotland’s political future? The eighties were not a pleasant time to be in the SNP.  Still blamed for their actions in helping to bring down the Callaghan Government and prematurely calling the general election in which Margaret Thatcher’s Tories swept to victory in the subsequent general election, they faced much derision and abuse on the doorsteps. That the SNP were on the right side of the debate in the eighties on the Poll-Tax, in support of the miners and against the desecration of traditional industry did not matter a jot, their decision in 1979 was a cross to be borne.  

It was inevitable that Callaghan’s government would fail anyway. It had failed to deliver its own policy on devolution and it was incompatible to dealing with the many problems of the seventies – the three day working week and the knock-on effects of that, and strikes which left the streets filed with rubbish had already hardened middle-England voters against the Labour Party. They would vote Tory in swathes at the next election, but in supporting the vote of no confidence which brought down the government the SNP sealed their own fate; losing 9 of their MPs at the general election and consigning the party to an electoral funk which would last well over a decade.

I remember during the 1989 Euro elections Kenny McAskill stood as an SNP candidate. He set off to campaign in Leven with my mum and Charlie and Craig Reid of the Proclaimers on the “Snappy bus” -which was a van with no sides and a loud hailer. They returned hours later caked from head to toe in egg. Leven, it seems, had not forgiven the SNP even then.

Another chant which formed the soundtrack of my childhood was “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out, out, out” as my brother, sister and I accompanied our parents from Bannockburn marches to anti-Poll Tax rallies. There was no disputing the passion and sentiment of the people who were involved and marched.  Ordinary people marching in defiance of a discriminatory and unfair system of taxation, imposed on Scotland a year earlier than the rest of the UK. The despair of people on those marches was palpable. These were not only marches against the Poll Tax, but about the annihilation of industry and mining which underpinned the very fabric of Scottish urban and rural society and way of life. They were marches against forced unemployment, against visceral attacks on Scottish society.

Margaret Thatcher traduced the working classes; the blue collar workers who were the engine power house of Scottish traditional heavy industry. She maligned the workers, privatised their industries and went to war on the unions to sate an ego which insisted she was correct and brooked no argument from those who dissented. She was the ultimate political narcissist in action.

Margaret Thatcher metaphorically took a sledge hammer to mining communities, to close knit communities of proud working men and their families. She criminalised miners and forced food from their families’ tables to impose her arrogant scorched earth political will and policies. That Arthur Scargill did a disservice to miners does not exculpate Margaret Thatcher, it just highlights that they were both driven by ego to the exclusion sense and compassion.

Her premiership is categorised by infringements and attacks and erosion of civil liberties. She employed draconian and subversive methods of undermining political opposition.  She politicised the police and she used covert operatives to spy on protesters. That my parent’s phone was tapped during the miners’ strike is merely an indication of this, not the sum total. Their particular brand subversive actions? They were feeding the miners who were on strike.

That Thatcher came to power in a very difficult period cannot be disputed. Something did need to be done.  That something was definitely not to act with reckless abandonment and callousness creating social divisions and ramping up class barriers. The rich got richer, and the workers lost their jobs.
Margaret Thatcher’s governance is categorised by her kowtowing to the City of London. She was much trumpeted for creating the opportunity for social mobility, but this was built upon the shaky foundations of credit, and the whole house of cards – banking deregulation, reckless spending and spiralling borrowing – culminated in the crash of 2008.  The crash of 2008 was inevitable, built as it was on credit. It was one lasting legacy of Thatcher, like finding someone has dropped a fish behind your chest of drawers and left it to rot.

She is credited by her admirers for giving working people the “Right to Buy” social housing which allowed people to get on the property ladder.  And loathe Thatcher as they came to do, many people in Scotland did take the opportunity to do just that.  However, this was another of Thatcher’s ticking time bombs. So many houses were sold off without much attempt to replace them that queues for adequate social housing are huge and people are forced in to private rented accommodation which is more expensive and benefits neither the welfare system nor the householder.  The only one benefitting in that situation is the landlord. Some of whom bought their properties from the state at knock down prices in the first place. Margaret Thatcher probably thinks that is a good thing though.  Capitalism, eh? 

And so now, when her successor in Cameron applies his unfair and disgusting bedroom tax, there are hugely insufficient numbers of size appropriate social housing for those affected to move to, even if they wanted to.

Privatising public industry, annihilating heavy industries like shipbuilding and steel-working, and attacking the public sector does not come without its cost. Four million people in the UK were unemployed, many of whom did not have the skill sets or education to smoothly transition from one industry to another. Many of whom in despair as their whole communities were blighted by worklessness and their pride stripped away as they were forced on to the scrapheap.  Thatcher robbed these people of their self-worth, forcing them on to benefits and parking them there, creating new categories of benefits where people were abandoned, forgotten, but which allowed Thatcher to massage the unemployment figures to her advantage. What cost to these people as the eighties carried on regardless of their plight with its shoulder pads, cigars, champagne and ostentatious behaviours and superficial wealth? They were collateral damage to Thatcher’s autocratic pursuit of self-interest.

Scotland hasn’t forgiven the Conservatives – or indeed Thatcher – because Scotland has not recovered from the Conservatives or Thatcher. The Tories are so synonymous with Thatcher that their vote is in perpetual decline. Margaret Thatcher has cast them adrift and only some seismic shift can change their electoral fortunes.

When Thatcher came to power in 1979, Scotland did lag significantly behind the rest of the UK in terms of unemployment and other figures, and this is no longer the case. Proponents of Thatcher point to her economic policies as being responsible for this. Thre may be elements of truth in that, but that is based only on a superficial examination of the employment which people are consigned to., It isn’t as simple as job creation. 

The jobs which were lost during the Thatcher era were jobs for life; skilled jobs, trade jobs. Replacing these with transient service industries and call centres might make for good reading of unemployment figures, but they certainly don’t tell the story about life quality and opportunity. Thatcher’s policies ripped the heart out of communities, and you cannot patch that rent with part-time jobs in the service industry.

Worse than destroying industries she destroyed communities, aspirations and people and that is not a legacy to be proud of.

So, when Thatcher died yesterday, I confess – to my shame – that there was a brief moment of satisfaction that we could now move on to dissecting the legacy of Thatcher; of Blairism and Cameronism. Both are pale imitations, but shaped by her vision nonetheless. In the case of Cameron, her legacy of pandering to the wealthy to the exclusion of the most vulnerable is interpreted, possibly, even more perniciously than she enacted when in power. 

Thatcher created the conditions which eradicated heavy industry and mining in Scotland. You can’t destroy an industry twice when it is already obliterated, but Cameron is trying his best to continue Thatcher’s legacy by destroying the only industries left to him; the English NHS and the public sector.

I wasn’t dancing the “Day that Thatcher Died”, even if that song by Hefner has a very catchy tune. She was a wife, a mother, and a grandmother and divisive she may have been; arrogant and callous she undoubtedly was, she was a person and our humanity should dictate we don’t dance on her grave. 

However, I will not stand idly by and watch her eulogised out of culpability for the many crimes committed against the social fabric of Scotland.
Margaret Thatcher politicised the playgrounds. That should serve as due indication of the strength of feeling of people in Scotland have about her actions in office.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Public Speaking and the Fear That Lurks Inside

The first time I remember feeling real terror as a child I was alone in my room with a burst balloon trying to suck the rubber until it popped like Clingfilm. Rubber, however, isn’t as easily popped as Clingfilm and it resisted my herculean efforts to make it.  Instead the balloon shot to the back of my throat and lodged there, blocking my airway. I was terrified.  I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t shout for help.  I choked, I coughed, I turned red and I panicked. I am here now, so it all turned out fine in the end, but for those few seconds I was truly frightened and clawing at my throat in abject terror as I couldn’t get any air in to my lungs, marvelling all the while at the tenuous hold we have on our own mortality.

This was the first time I remember experiencing the sensation of being unable to breathe. It certainly wasn’t the last.

Meet me and you will quickly realise that there are some things I do well, or more accurately, often and incessantly. Talking is one such thing.  I could talk until the cows come home; talk the rear (and front legs) off a donkey and any other ridiculous simile you’d care to toss my way. Give me a topic and - I might not know anything about it - but I’ll unadvisedly have a clumsy bash at conversing on it. Your main problem is stopping me full flow. I remember a school report from a high school geography class which rather wittily sniped, “work sometimes interferes with her chatting”. Meet me and you’d probably make the mistake of thinking that I always enjoy an audience.

The second time I felt the same discomfort and terror I was in high school. I had prepared a solo talk. It was pretty funny, or at least I thought so.  My chosen topic was an irreverent report about the motivations behind Jarvis Cocker interrupting the pomposity of Michael Jackson’s Brits performance of Earth Song. I felt confident I could make the audience laugh. My friends had laughed when we practised our talks in the lunch break before.

The first 30 seconds were fine – if somewhat quick. Then I looked up. I looked up and realised where I was. I was standing in front of a group of my peers, their attention was on me, and I panicked. I stopped breathing.  I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. I stuttered.  I tried again, nothing.  I fled that room in tears.

A few years later, again in high school, I was in sixth year and Head Girl. A concert was given to honour the retirement of my primary school head teacher and I was asked to write a tribute.  Given her many attributes, it wasn’t a difficult task to pay homage to a dedicated and supportive teacher such as Mrs Gilfillan. It is a shame that my considered written words, when I attempted to read them from stage, failed to do her justice.  Mid-way through my voice just stopped.  Again I fled in tears. I think some people thought I was overcome with emotion at paying tribute to Mrs Gilfillan, but I wasn’t; I was in tears because I couldn’t articulate myself, breathe or find the courage to read what I had so painstakingly written.

Mark Twain said that there are only two types of public speakers in the world; the nervous, and the liars. I don’t necessarily agree, but I take his point.

Hyperventilation is a construct of the mind.  It isn’t any less real for being so. It feels real and it provokes a real physical response as the brain tells the body that it can’t breathe. For people who suffer from panic attacks it can be terribly debilitating. I am lucky that my panic attacks were limited to public speaking. Some people have their lives severely restricted by other situation-based experiences even more frequent; like crowded spaces, small spaces or even empty rooms. I feel a kinship with anyone who has experienced panic attacks. It isn’t rational, but it is very real to the person experiencing that sensation. It certainly isn’t as simple as mind over matter; not when it is the mind that is the matter.

When I went to the University of Aberdeen to study law, I decided to take part in mooting.  Perhaps in the swanky new law library there still resides a dusty trophy bearing the names of the winners of the 2001 mooting competition; myself and the lovely Miss Joanne Powrie.

Poor Joanne, unfortunately for her, was probably the person most familiar with the limitations of my public speaking.  She chose ill for a partner as I had to be cajoled along at every stage.  Oh the jokes about paper bags we made and laughed at. It was funny, to an extent, but I am aware that I used humour as a defence mechanism to cover up my discomfort. That we won is tribute to Joanne’s wonderful legal reasoning rather than any conquering of my incapacitating fear of speaking in public.

Undeterred, I decided a less formal form of public speaking might conquer my affliction and off to Cyprus I toddled in 2003 to work as a holiday rep. What I took away from Cyprus is affection for the country, an intellectual curiosity about the political situation, a love for karaoke and some wonderful memories. I didn’t conquer my fear of public speaking even if I was happily disinterested enough to wax lyrical confidently to a group of holiday makers about the virtues of Cyprus.

It did, however, teach me a lesson: that where I am imparting knowledge to people eager to hear it - such as holiday makers, or in a training environment - I am confident to speak in front of people. I had already learned as a sixth year at high school, when I crashed higher drama at the school across the road, that I was confident when I was performing someone else’s words. I just lacked the confidence to articulate my own.

I have been a trainer, I have presented information to groups over the years since university, and even then still got a small flutter of panic as I step in front of a group, but it was manageable, a managed discomfort.

This year I made a decision. I decided that it lacks integrity to snipe on the sidelines about people who have the ability to deliver their own words to an audience whilst lacking the courage to get up and articulate my own alternative. I have opinions and if I have any conviction in them, I should be able to stand in front of a group of people and substantiate them. Else how can I critique with any credibility others who put themselves out to public scrutiny?

And so I have embarked on a journey which is perhaps the most difficult thing I have undertaken in my life.  I consider the fear I have past felt every time I stand in front of an audience.  My mouth goes dry and I feel the back of my throat begin to close. Then I remember that I am there to speak because I believe in the topic I am addressing, and that is a powerful motivator.

How proud was I, and privileged, to be one of those to speak in the NATO debate at SNP conference in 2012? I waited in the huge audience half terrified, half desirous of hearing my name being read out to speak on a matter of fundamental importance that I am absolutely passionate about.

My name was read out and I wandered up there in a dwam, conscious of the thousands of faces riveted on the stage. Nonetheless, I got up there and I spoke. It might not have been the performance that I’d like to have given, but that I was there at all was remarkable to me.

Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Make Friends and Influence People wrote, “There are always three speeches for every one you actually give: the one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wished you’d given.”

Afterward, as I took my seat I was shaking so much I spilled my bottled water down me, but that was a lesson to me.  That was progress, and it gets easier every time I undertake to speak in public.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate and flattered to be asked to speak at various events in support of independence.  I’ve addressed an audience at Glasgow University, talking about gender and the referendum; kicked off proceedings in front of 600+ at the launch of Yes Glasgow; and began my campaign to be selected as an MEP candidate for 2014 by being involved in hustings meetings, making my case directly to meetings of party members and activists across the country.

Every time I make my way to the final full stop of my speech I feel a small personal victory. Perhaps practice won’t entirely conquer the fear, but passion is a powerful motivator and I am passionate about the direction which Scotland moves in. And if I sometimes feel the flutter of fear, so what?

**Since I wrote this, I today failed to be selected as one of the SNP's candidates for Europe. I don't see this as a failure though.  I got up in front of a big audience to try to sell myself - which is a whole other shade of fear. I evidently didn't do the best job in the world, but just being up there on that stage is a personal victory for me, so I am a winner too!

And thanks to everyone who supported and voted for me. I owe you all a debt of gratitude.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Very Personal Welcome to the Scottish Government 'Don't Give Fire a Home' Initiative

I doubt many people will wake up early on Hallowe’en Sunday morning at the age of 23 to go in to McDonald’s to open the store for 6am.  I doubt even more so that you will be visited by your aunt at around 9:15am, who looks like her chin is still stained with fake vampire blood, whilst wondering why she is there as her closest McDonald’s is on the other side of the river Forth. Nor will you demand she tells you what is wrong, because you suspect something is, and then run through a list of your immediate family members loudly, and in front of horrified staff and a full queue of customers, getting increasingly frantic.  Nor when you mention your brother’s name will she look stricken as you demand she tells you what is wrong.  I hope you never have to hear the words, especially in front of an audience, that he died in a house fire, pulled out not breathing at 7am that morning.  I hope you never have to hear those words.

I did.

Loss is something everyone faces in their lifetime; it is an inevitable part of living, although that doesn’t make it any easier. Happiness is a quiet death at an old age surrounded by family, sadness is a long illness which eventually wins, sadness is also a short illness, unexpected. Tragedy is an accident where circumstance steals away a loved one. Waste is something entirely different.  Waste is carelessness. Carelessness is what killed my brother. He died in a house fire; a house fire of his own making. He went in after a party and decided to fry some chips; fell asleep and never woke up. That is waste.

How many times do we read of house fires, fatal and non-fatal, but dangerous nonetheless, of carelessness, of chip pans, or pans left on or dropped cigarettes?  How many times do we hear that these houses had no fire alarms to wake up the inhabitants of the house or their neighbours? How often is alcohol a factor?

My brother had a fire alarm, it did go off and someone attempted to help him.  Unfortunately they were too late to resuscitate him, but at least there is a chance if you have a smoke alarm.  And isn’t it morally reprehensible to put your neighbours lives in danger too by not having a fire alarm to possibly alert them and their families of a fire? Sometimes forward planning and a little bit of sense can prevent your family having to pick up the pieces of your waste and carelessness.

I’ve never written about my brother dying, why would I? It is personal to me and my family, but yesterday I saw the Scottish Government launch its “Don’t Give Fire a Home” initiative and wanted to stick my oar in, and praise any efforts to raise awareness that fire can happen to anyone, tragedy can affect any family.  It did then, in 2004, and it did again last year.

My aunt, who was my godmother, died in a house fire last year.  They say lightning doesn’t strike twice; well it did in our family.

If this serves as a little reminder every time your oversensitive fire alarm goes off when you burn some toast and you are tempted to remove the battery, then it is worth me talking about.  If it stops you getting in after an evening and out and switching on a cooker, then it is worth sharing a personal story.

Just remember: Fire Kills, Carelessness Kills.  It happened to our family twice, it can happen to anyone.  Be careful and take precautions.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Stop the IndyRef bandwagon, women should be on board too.

I’ve grown up with the idea that independence is as natural as drawing a breath; that it is the point to which all peoples aspire, and that we should grab our chance of self-determination and run with it. I have always felt that independence offers a boundless sense of opportunity to be the best that we can be with the resources that are available to us. 

I grew up in a family of formidable women who were pro-independence, and so never questioned the viability of independence or absence of other women’s voice in the debate, but missing they are. I feel very strongly that only in encouraging and including women in the debate can we shape a truly representative independence which works for us.

I have been outspoken in the past about being against zipping lists, or in any way using positive affirmation in order to gender balance political representation, and I am not going to refute that here.  That would be hypocritical of me, and would be pretence. I still don’t believe in interfering with the mechanics of selection because I truly believe it is sophistry; it masks the problem by the appearance of inclusivity whilst simultaneously ignoring root cause.

The problem with the lack of female voices in politics, and in public life is because women’s participation in politics is lower, and this is what we need to address, not hide. We need to be open and honest, and right across the whole of the political spectrum take ownership of the problem instead of the usual lip-service and obfuscation.

Never has this absence of women’s voices been more apparent or important than in the early stages of the independence referendum debate. This is the most potentially transformative political decision we will be asked to take in our lives, and also the most eagerly anticipated for some of us.  I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working towards this point, praying that one day we would have the guts to put it to a test. Here it is, we have that opportunity, and I for one want my voice counted, and I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops. But that isn’t enough; I want other women to have the confidence, the opportunity, and the space to shout out their voices too. 

That is why Women For Independence came about. All across the political spectrum women were waiting, watching to see what was happening, and when we didn’t see women’s voices shaping the debate we wanted to hear we decided that we needed to intervene. We wanted to give women the opportunity to raise their voices, to speak their concerns, to get answers they wanted, and to get involved; creating a space for women which is for women and by women. It is easy to see the poverty of economics, but it is sometimes harder to see the poverty of representation although these are by no means exclusive of each other.  Levels of poverty of economics are substantially higher for women than men.

Over the last few months a behind the scenes grassroots group was forming, a participative group taking cognisance of the talents of the women who joined, and continue to join. That group is Women For Independence. A group designed with women in mind by other women from right across the political spectrum, across all walks of life, age ranges and geography. Now we are ready to invite more women to join us. We want to empower women to go out in to their own local communities and get Listening - Listening for Independence. We want to be a participative group, and an active group.
It has been a privilege over the last few months to meet other women who I would not have had the pleasure to meet under any other circumstance – except on twitter. It is inspirational to me that party loyalties and other prejudices can be set aside because we are united in the solid belief that if we want to win the independence referendum and have an independence reflective of society, then we need to motivate women voters. We need to listen to, answer, engage with and campaign with other women. I truly believe this could be the most worthwhile thing I am involved in in the run up to the referendum

Let me state here that I don’t believe independence will cure all the ills in society or that once it is achieved we can all sit back and enjoy it. Independence is the gateway only; a first step along a rocky pathway to a more representative society which embraces and works for everyone in it. Independence gives us the chance to create a society and constitution which reflects the values we have as a nation; to protect the vulnerable; to support people in times of need; to help the sick; to provide justice and equality for all and to give people the opportunity to achieve; through world class education, training and funding. We need to make an independence which works for women today.  Let us throw off the shackles of history and start our new country unencumbered by the weight of discrimination and inequality.

Independence is what we make of it and that is the most important part; it is what WE make of it.  Who better to understand the needs and problems in our society, to explore the solutions, than us?

Of course people have questions about whether we can afford it or what the country will look like and other issues and concerns important to them that we have to address. And address them we will. But let us do this on all sides of the debate and move forward without the shadow of fear, without the scourge of misinformation and rhetoric, listening to everyone’s voices and giving the debate what we demand of it: honesty. Let us have a positive case for independence v a positive case for the union, present them in a spirit of respect and let us let the people like us decide.

I know which way I will be voting.

If you want to join us we would love to have you on board. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The rhetoric of the 'Votes at 16' Debate

I recently was asked by Rob Murray of Tory Hoose to write an opinion piece on why I agree on extending the voting franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds.  You can find the piece I wrote here:

Rob asked me to write between 400 and 600 words.  Of course I went over, but I still had to curtail my argument to a brief skeleton of that I wished to make.  It is important to recognise that there is a depth of feeling on either side of this debate, but it is moreover imperative that the debate does not descend into a finger pointing exercise.  I welcomed the opportunity that Rob gave me to utilise a non-nationalist platform to attempt to dispel the argument that the SNP wish to gerrymander the independence referendum by enfranchising 16/17 year olds; that this, for me, transcends party politics, instead upholding  a longstanding position which the SNP and I share. 

Since I don’t know the exact date of the referendum beyond a mooted idea of ‘autumn 2014’ (I take no cognisance of October 18th as there is a consultation ongoing), I am unclear as to how many potential new voters would be added to the electoral register if we choose to extend the franchise. It may be enough to add a couple of percent either way, but that could be enough to swing it if the vote is close. In which case, is fear of the way they might vote a valid argument to exclude them from voting? Certainly not, and in respect of the lack of polling data on how they would vote, a silly one.

How sad that Labour, with lofty ambitions to be the party of youth, with novel and competent ideas about apprenticeships and supporting young people, wants to exclude them from the democratic process and, more importantly, fears that the due to their naivety and that same youth they are more likely to be bowled over by some form of ‘radicalism’ which the more mature members of our society can resist.

More contemptible than sad that the Liberal Democrats who have chaired sessions supporting votes at 16, and were, until recently, passionate advocates for a more democratic PR form of elections can’t find any merit because of blind political ambition. This is the ‘Liberal’ Democrats for goodness sake, what happened? Surely there are some in the Scottish Liberal Democrats who are horrified that this erosion of party principles, which started at UK level, has filtered down to the Scottish Parliament.

The Conservatives I can’t really fault as being disingenuous or pity for taking a deliberate opposition for contrariness sake.  They may have been in government during the period which embraced universal suffrage, but they have made little move since them to make the system of voting any more democratic or inclusive. They stubbornly attach themselves to FPTP, and annihilated the Lib Dems in 2011 by first watering down their PR referendum, replacing it with the useless AV, then torpedoing that detested referendum with great glee.

I read, with interest, some of the comments from people who support votes at 16 but won’t endorse it for the referendum because how dare the SNP only want to do this for the referendum and not for other elections. They are too blinkered to see that the SNP have no powers by which to change the franchise for these other elections.  It is only by dint of the overall majority in May’s Scottish parliament elections that the SNP can use an influence to propose terms to the UK as we try to thrash out a deal which will secure legal competency for the outcome of an referendum.  This influence only extends to the franchise for the referendum. After the disaster of the 2007 elections, the Gould Report included proposals to change the way in which elections were conducted in Scotland; including transferring the power to run the elections to the Scottish Government.  It did not include transferring the power to change the franchise, and as far as I can see, the Scotland Bill does not either. The only other example of the Scottish Government having the power to set the franchise for an election is in respect of Health Board Elections; where 16 and 17 year olds were included on that franchise.

I am confident that the SNP can win the argument on independence whether the voter is a 50 year old house husband or a 16 year old school pupil because we have the right argument, not because we are preying on a naivety of youth.  Having been to some schools and spoken to pupils about campaigning and politics, I have been more stumped by their questions in that forum than I have in 15 years of canvassing ‘real voters’ on the doorsteps.  It is a lazy argument to argue against voting at 16 on the basis of alleged jiggerypokery by the SNP. If you are against it, say why. Articulate an argument which is free from party politics. I support votes for 16 year olds in ALL elections and have done since I was old enough to articulate to myself the reasons I wanted to vote.

I admit I had a fairly unusual childhood in regards an active participation in politics from a very young age. Not for me the trips to adventure parks that other children in my class had; my weekends and holidays were filled with anti-poll tax rallies and campaigning for my mum in the council elections, or elsewhere. That didn’t mean, however, that I was indoctrinated. I remember when I was 16 and doing my CSYS Modern Studies, I did a dissertation on the autonomy of the Scottish Labour Party.  I was privileged to be able to interview Dennis Canavan and Alex Falconer MEP. Surprisingly, to Alex, we found concurrence on many issues; the main sticking point being independence.  He was astounded that at my age I had read Tom Payne’s The Rights of Man. I was amused that despite that surprise he was even more astounded by the fact that a member of the SNP had read it! Regardless of the country dynamics and how we get it, aren’t we all united in working toward social justice?

Do I think that I am any better informed now than I was then? Possibly. More possible is that I am more formally educated now, but I am also somewhat jaded. I am optimistic about the future but don’t have such wild abandoned joy and sense of absolute possibility and expectation. Do people who are against extending the franchise fear this optimism because they think that, unguarded, it could lead us all down the merry road to independence?

Why must this sense of enthusiasm lead them inevitably to independence? Surely people who argue to maintain the union have a sense of optimism about the future of Scotland within the union. Both sides of the debate have to be able to put forward this optimism in a positive campaign to capture the enthusiasm of all voters, and make a cogent argument that their position best represents the most positive and fair outcome for Scotland and her people.