Dani Garavelli: Female voters will be key to indyref2

So much has happened since, it can be difficult to recall the tenor of political debate in Scotland in 2012 when the signing of the Edinburgh agreement fired the starting gun on the Yes campaign.

Sturgeon at The Kelpies in Falkirk with 63 MSPs, 27 of them women, after losing her majority in the 2016 election. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

One thing is for sure, though, it was dominated by male voices, many of them hectoring. It started at the top with Alex Salmond, an alpha male whose achievements in securing a referendum and in raising the Yes vote from 27 per cent to 45 per cent were impressive, but whose bombastic nature – polls suggested – was off-putting to many female voters.

Then there were the TV pundits, the many manels, the days when Kate Higgins, Lesley Riddoch and Joyce McMillan seemed to be the only female commentators with a public platform from which to proselytise the benefits of independence.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

All that changed, of course. The need to engage women – both as voters and activists – was quickly understood. Women for Independence was formed; young female commentators started gaining social media profiles and appearing on TV debates and community events.

This was important, not only for broad gender equality reasons, but because it was acknowledged that women were less likely than men to vote Yes. No-one could say precisely why, but plausible theories – beyond the Salmond factor – included the suggestion that women are somehow more cautious, that they prefer debates to be less confrontational and that they felt excluded from the political process.

By the time of the referendum, the female vote had shifted significantly, but not enough. In the end, 53 per cent of men voted Yes, while 57 per cent of women voted No, so you could argue it was the lack of female support that lost the Yes movement the referendum.

Post-2014, of course, the landscape was transformed. Salmond was replaced by Sturgeon; the number of female SpAds and civil servants increased, the membership of Women for Independence exploded and a new generation of young female nationalists came of age.

In 2018, analysis carried out by WfI suggested Sturgeon’s style of politics and policies on child care were shifting women towards independence. And yes, I suppose they would say that, but it stands to reason too. There were many positives about Salmond’s leadership, but his focus on “women’s issues” was not amongst them, whereas gender equality is high on Sturgeon’s agenda.

This is history, of course. I mention it now only because the tenor of the debate seems to be shifting again. Last week, in an interview in the Times, the Wings Over Scotland blogger Rev Stuart Campbell revealed he might stand for the Scottish Parliament at the next Holyrood election (particularly if there is no second indyref before 2021).

His motivation, as far as it is possible to glean, is impatience – with Sturgeon for allegedly putting the SNP’s continued political power above the cause of independence, with the Greens for underplaying their hand and with Scotland for being too gutless to embrace self-determination.

His plan is to stand as a list MSP in an attempt to ensure a pro-independence majority.

I understand his impatience; I really do. Here we are watching helplessly as a catastrophe we didn’t vote for, driven by a government we don’t support, threatens to undo us all. For many of the already converted, this ought to be the moment of truth; the moment we say: “No more” and throw off the shackles of the Union.

It is frustrating to have to wait for the First Minister to make her move; more frustrating still to know that, when she does, she will be rebuffed by Westminster which has the power to say Yay or Nay.

Forgive me, however, if I do not believe the answer to that frustration is “more sweary, profane and angry people like Campbell”.

This last sentence is a quote from a column by Kevin McKenna, revealing the Wings party will have his vote. I respect Kevin, but there appears to be a growing cabal of (mostly) men who believe that behaving aggressively is going to win over No voters; who are convinced that shouting and swearing and trying to game the democratic process is going to produce a majority for independence where there wasn’t one before.

Worse, this cabal seems unable – or unwilling – to acknowledge the problem many women have with alt-Nat men like Campbell whose default setting is “attack”, who throw out the C-word like sweeties at a pantomime, and who resort to personal abuse under the cover of “humour”.

“Oh, but Wings has female supporters,” his advocates insists. Aye, he does. Women who hang on his every post and will happily join in his pile-ons. But to dismiss the visceral reaction the thought of a Wings party has invoked in others as “cartoon horror” is to demonstrate a deep lack of empathy for those who feel targeted by his invective. Many feminist activists in the wider Yes movement are on Campbell’s Twitter blocklist, and block him in return, which hardly creates a climate conducive to constructive debate, and adds to the sense that some Indy men don’t much care about the women in the movement.

Campbell may not be actively misogynist. Back in his days of video games journalism Campbell spoke out against #Gamergate – the campaign of harassment against female gamers – but he personalises his attacks in a way that could be perceived as bullying.

Nor are his personalised attacks aimed solely at politicians. A few years ago, he called Scottish black writer Claire Heuchan “an absolute galactic class c***wit”. Then, just last week, he saw fit to comment on climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s physical appearance, describing her as a “teenager in an eight-year-old’s body”.

Could those comments be regarded as anything other than distasteful? It makes you wonder just how much Campbell’s advocates would prepared to ignore in exchange for his “forensic” analysis.

Nor is Campbell alone; early last week, speculation was rife that Alex Salmond was involved in the planning for this new party. Campbell denies this and we must take him at his word. But there is no doubt he is a fan of Salmond and vice versa. Others who are frustrated by Sturgeon’s cautious approach include Chris McEleny and Angus Brendan MacNeil. They are both advocates of “Plan B”, which holds that, if Westminster blocks a second referendum, a pro-independence electoral victory would be a mandate to push ahead regardless. As I said, Campbell’s new party is aimed at securing that electoral majority.

Last Sunday, McEleny – who is vocal about his moral objections to abortion – posted a tweet showing his biggest “fans” for the week were Campbell, MacNeil and Tommy Sheridan. Sheridan’s involvement in the All Under One Banner marches has already proved divisive.

These are all loose connections, but, if you follow them closely, you can detect a mobilisation of a wing of the Yes movement that is unlikely to have the interests of female voters at its core or to engage them in the debate.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter; there have always been those willing to throw women under a bus for “greater” political ends. But, come a second indyref, female voters are going to hold the key. Alienate them now at your 
own risk.