Leaders: The SNP and women

Traditionally the party has been reluctant to embrace gender equality in its rulebook – until now

In November last year Nicola Sturgeon became the first woman to hold the position of Scotlands first minister. Picture: Ian Rutherford

SCOTTISH nationalism has always had strong women as role models. In the 1920s the firebrand Wendy Wood was one of the founding members of the National Party of Scotland, a forerunner of the SNP, and twice went to prison for her beliefs. The renaissance of the modern SNP is usually dated to the victory in the 1967 Hamilton by-election of Winnie Ewing, who would go on to act as the party’s matriarch for almost 40 years. In the 1970s the darling of the nationalist movement was the irreplaceable Margo MacDonald, whose combination of toughness and charisma made her one of Scotland’s best-loved political figures. The standard-bearer of SNP orthodoxy after the resignation of Gordon Wilson in 1990 was Margaret Ewing – although she lost in the subsequent leadership election that saw leftwinger Alex Salmond win his first stint in charge of the SNP. Roseanna “Republican Rose” Cunningham was set to become SNP leader after the resignation of John Swinney in 2004, before Salmond for a second time deprived the party of its first woman in charge.

More recently, the SNP provided the Scottish Parliament’s first female presiding officer, in Tricia Marwick. And in November last year Nicola Sturgeon became the first woman to hold the position of Scotland’s first minister. And yet despite being blessed by these extraordinary women – some might argue because it was blessed with these extraordinary women – the Scottish National Party has been consistently firm in its opposition to affirmative action to achieve a greater gender balance in its parliamentary candidates. There is something about the issue that has brought out a thrawnness in the party, a distaste for what many activists regarded as socialist social engineering.

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Sturgeon is now aiming to change that. The party’s spring conference next weekend will debate a series of rule changes to try to improve the SNP’s historically poor record in gender balance, whether judged on selected candidates or elected representatives. The SNP leader has foregrounded the issue in her short time in charge of the party, making it the theme of her speech at Holyrood when elected First Minister and returning to the subject repeatedly since.

Sturgeon is expected to win the day on party rule changes next weekend. The massive influx in membership has increased the proportion of women in the ranks, and many of the new arrivals have been brought into politics by the Yes campaign last year, in which gender and equality issues played a prominent role. The party is also much more left-leaning than it was even ten years ago, and less socially conservative. But as we report today, Sturgeon is being opposed by a group of activists who see this as a retrograde step, and who expect their wrecking amendment to be backed by many of the party’s older members. The debate will be held behind closed doors, as is usual for internal party business.

It might seem strange that a political party is debating a potentially divisive internal measure at a pre-election conference that is usually little more than a rally. But the changes need to happen now if they are to be implemented in time for next year’s Holyrood election. Also, a victory for women’s equality would be a campaigning boost for a party that has until recently struggled to attract as many female voters as male.

Sturgeon is clear in her intentions, but is still cautious in her approach to gender equality. For example, while Scottish Labour advocates a legislative requirement for a 50:50 gender split on the boards of public bodies, Sturgeon wrote in this newspaper on International Women’s Day earlier this month that her government’s policy was a 50:50 target by 2020, not a binding quota. The power to set a quota by law is to be devolved to Holyrood under the Smith Agreement.

The fight for equality for women still has some way to go, even within the SNP government.

Unacceptable delay with lives at stake

EVERY year 2,000 people – mostly children – get the bacterial infection known as meningitis B. Of these cases, around 200 result in death. These deaths happen year-upon-year-upon-year. Additionally, one in four of those who survive experience life-changing problems including amputation, 
epilepsy, deafness and learning difficulties.

The tragedy is that most of these cases could be prevented through a UK-wide programme of vaccination.

This logical conclusion that such a programme was exactly what the country needed was made a year ago. But to date, no deal has been done with the drug company that makes the vaccine after disagreements about price.

A year is an awful long time to discuss a commercial transaction. And in these circumstances, a year is also 2,000 desperately worried families, hundreds of lives damaged, and 200 funerals with small white coffins. We have chosen to
express this in emotive terms quite deliberately. Because what the government ministers and corporate executives involved in these discussions need to understand is that their prevarication and brinkmanship costs young lives.

Those involved in the negotiations point to the fact that the company that pioneered the vaccine, Novartis, was taken over by the pharma giant GSK in the middle of the process. It is a fair point. But the reaction to the takeover should have been a renewed urgency to strike a deal and – we have no qualms about labouring the point – save young lives.

There are plenty of mediation and arbitration services designed to address disagreements such as this and bring them to a conclusion. The need for such a recourse should have been clear many months ago.

Of course the health authorities need a cost-effective solution, especially with so many
pressures on public spending. And of course the company is entitled to a suitable return on the investment that produced the vaccine in the first place.

But in this area of commerce, deadlock should be regarded by both sides as unacceptable, bec­ause everyone involved should be all too aware what that means. GSK and the Department of Health – which is also acting for the Scottish Government – must agree a deal, and fast.