EDINBURGH, Scotland (WOMENSENEWS)–Today’s referendum for Scottish independence has, it seems, challenged more than just the concept of national identity.
It’s also pushing women to the forefront of politics.
Leaders of two major parties are women; Ruth Davidson for the Scottish Conservatives and Johann Lamont for Scottish Labour. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon is both deputy leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and deputy first minister.
The change goes further. Earlier this month, Scottish broadcaster STV aired a televised political debate in which four out of the six speakers were female, and three of the speakers were gay.
Ruth Hunt is chief executive of the U.K.-based Stonewall, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights. Although the charity is based in London, they have an active Scottish branch and Hunt has been involved in Scotland-specific campaigns.
"Regardless of whether you’re yes or no what has been striking about this campaign is that three women have been at the heart of it: Nicola, Ruth and Johann," Hunt said in an email interview. "Only in the very last stages have men begun to dominate the airwaves. Those of us who’ve been following this over the last two years know that it’s women who’ve set the tone and led the gritty, sometimes fierce, debates. It has been a richer debate for it."
Sturgeon and Davidson have dominated the airwaves, with Lamont shamefully sidelined by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has his eyes set on the bigger prize of next year’s general election.
In a refreshing change from the schoolboy elite and Westminster, both women are from middle- or working-class backgrounds, educated first at state schools and then at Scottish universities. Here’s a look at who they are and how their prominence affects the debate.
Her clear head, brilliant debating skills and unflappable public persona have brought pro-independence voters on board. Sturgeon could be described as the friendly face of the Yes campaign while Alex Salmond, who has been pushing for independence ever since entering politics, is popularly viewed as bellicose, unlikeable and overly optimistic.
Sturgeon is more than a poster girl for independence. She’s described by the Daily Mail in Scotland’s Executive Editor Kevin McKenna as "the most powerful woman in Scotland."
She’s always been a force of nature. When the 1997 general election saw a massive Labour landslide, her constituency in Glasgow Govan was the only one to swing away from Labour to the Scottish Nationalist Party. She climbed the ranks to stand as a party leader in 2004 only for Salmond, the previous leader, to decide he wanted to stand again. They have a close working relationship. He freely admits "that she’s given me some pretty stern advice." It’s quietly acknowledged that she’ll probably run for leader when he steps down.
Her appointment to run the Yes campaign in 2012 was a bid to get more women on board, which hasn’t entirely worked. Women here are still more likely to vote no or to be undecided. The No campaign hammered this point home in a political television ad this summer that backfired and drew outrage, including the Twitter hashtag #PatronisingBTLady, for its sexism.
Those who are in the yes camp tend to be passionate Sturgeon advocates. One pro-independence female voter described her to me as "plain-spoken without that patronizing ‘look at my roots’ schtick so beloved of Glasgow politicians. But that folksiness can hide credit she deserves as a cutthroat debater and razor sharp political mind."
Sturgeon’s best days seem yet to come, even in the event of a no vote. She’s played political second fiddle for a decade and if there’s anything Scotland loves, it’s an underdog.
She’s not what you’d expect from the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. In a party dominated by upper class straight men, she is a lesbian from Glasgow and she is the youngest ever party leader in the country. Better Together, the pro-union campaign, has largely been perceived as being run from London, but Davidson has been fighting tooth and nail to keep her nation together.
It’s a tough job for a Tory. At the crux of the independence debate is the perceived lack of democratic accountability in Westminster-led politics, currently run by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition even though Scotland has more Labour members of parliament. It’s possible that even if everyone in Scotland voted Labour, they could still end up ruled by a Conservative government.
You may not like her politics, but you have to admire her gumption. "It’s because she is a young, focused and compelling woman that she’s been able to make her case with integrity and authenticity," said Stonewall’s Hunt, who described Davidson as "an excellent role model for young women."
"She knows her own mind, can play with the best of them and absolutely remain true to herself. She is a better politician because of it," Hunt added.
Not everyone agrees. Lola Smith is a former Conservative voter from Motherwell, not far from Davidson’s hometown. Like Davidson she is a lesbian and was previously against Scottish independence before being persuaded by the Yes campaign. Rather than be encouraged by Davidson, however, she thinks the politician’s sexuality might work against her, seeing her as caught in "the trap of queer conservatives who don’t dare bite the hand that barely tolerates them. If she spent as much time trying to change things for her constituents as she did trying to suck up to the establishment and ‘fit in’, we might be better off," Smith said in an interview.
Both women have been described as a "nippy sweetie" — that peculiarly Scottish phrase denoting a sharp-tongued woman. Whichever one is celebrating tonight, the referendum has proved one thing – their bite might be equal to their bark, but sweet they aren’t.
Kaite Welsh is a U.K.-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Statesman and the Daily Telegraph.
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