Lesley Riddoch: Independence vote split by gender

Women want evidence that independence is a practical option, good for everyone, not just some, writes Lesley Riddoch

Women want evidence that independence is a practical option, good for everyone, not just some, writes Lesley Riddoch

It’s been a good week for the SNP and the independence campaign. According to Ipsos Mori, the Yes/No gap has narrowed by 7 per cent, Yes support (though still trailing) has doubled amongst under-25s and the SNP is 8 per cent ahead of Labour for Holyrood elections.

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But an interesting finding has been overlooked. Only 28 per cent of women plan to vote Yes against 41 per cent of men (with 11 per cent of both sexes are undecided). The gender gap remains stubborn – why is that?

In the past, observers have suggested women are hesitant, conservative or anti-change. Last year, Professor John Curtice wrote: “Perhaps in inviting us to step boldly into a bright, but as yet unfamiliar future, the rhetoric of the Yes camp is one that resonates more with the hunter-gatherer, assertive side of our natures rather than our desire for calm and security. And stereotypical though the observation might be, maybe this appeals to fewer women than to their male, more macho counterparts.”

But women are no less likely to “feel Scottish” than men and do express high levels of interest in health, education and equality. If women don’t associate these key issues with “politics” or “the constitution”, that surely says more about the alienating, exclusive nature of current debate than female fear of change.

According to Edinburgh professor of politics Fiona Mackay, the poll result “may be a rational response to the lack of authoritative, non-partisan information and analysis. Women may also be more willing to admit they don’t know and men more likely to overestimate their own competence”.

I’d go one further. Female hesitation over independence is a rational response to warm words that never quite translate into action, great frameworks that are not matched by even competent delivery, and the prospect of a new boss just like the old boss – male, stale and pale.

Women aren’t buying the rhetoric – they want concrete evidence that independence will change all lives – not just some lives – for the better.

A study of the 2011 Social Attitudes Survey (SSA) categorised 23 per cent of men but only 10 per cent of women as “heart” supporters of independence, backing change even if standards of living might fall.

Senior research director at ScotCen Social Research, Rachel Ormston, observed that more men are “emotional” nationalists – supporting Scottish independence as a matter of conviction.

“The SNP is unlikely to convince women through appeals to national pride, freedom or other “emotional” concepts. It will have to convince them through rational arguments about practical consequences.”

In a debate full of rhetoric and technical preoccupation with currency, the army and the nature of EU membership, that practical focus has been missing. Welfare and pensions made up 37 per cent of UK public spending in 2012 – a more inclusive debate would ask how “women-friendly” policies like affordable childcare and an early-years revolution could be financed if that budget came north. Instead, an (initially) male-only welfare panel was appointed.

Despite Nicola Sturgeon’s high profile and very positive public rating – +17 compared to David Cameron (-40) Alistair Darling (+1) and even Alex Salmond (+7) – every key appointment, event or policy launched by the SNP or Yes campaign has left women and their primary concerns as an afterthought or forced 51 per cent of the population into special pleading for even a small share of power.

Perhaps the Scottish Government have got a tad smug about female representation at Holyrood.

Thanks to Labour’s decision to twin seats and “zip” the list back in 1999, women constitute 35 per cent of MSPs compared to 21 per cent of MPs at Westminster. But that’s down from 40 per cent – and female involvement in local government, quangos, public boards or the plethora of independence-related commissions or special advisers is far lower.

In any case, Holyrood will soon be left behind by socially conservative Ireland. Currently, there are just 25 women TDs in the Dail – a record high of 15 per cent – but that’s set to change. Some 30 per cent of candidates in all parties must be female at the next general election, rising to 40 per cent by 2019, or political funding will be withheld.

Holyrood is about to lag behind the Dail and the SNP already lags 20 per cent behind Labour in the number of women elected as MSPs. A recent proposal by Labour MSPs Jenny Marra and Kezia Dugdale to adopt European Commission plans for quotas to get more women on public boards has had no official support from the SNP.

Alex Salmond’s welcome backing for a written constitution also missed a trick. A statutory right to affordable childcare could have been on the wish-list along with guarantees that women and non-politicians will be equally involved right from the start of any drafting process.

Instead, Scotland’s future will be shaped by “an all-party panel with contributions from the public and civic Scotland”. On present performance and without quotas, that writing team will be 99 per cent male and 99 per cent professional politician in composition.

Instead, the First Minister could emulate more ambitious colleagues in the “Arc of Prosperity.” Ten years ago, the male Norwegian trade minister extended the country’s existing 40 per cent quota of women on public boards to the private sector. It took just two years for Norway’s board-rooms to comply.

The Irish Deliberative Assembly, currently examining the constitution, has a hundred members – 66 citizens and 33 politicians: 60 men and 40 women.

The Icelandic Assembly was composed of 475 men and 475 women. It suggested a commission elected by popular vote to draft a People’s Constitution and the 15 men and ten women chosen in a nationwide online vote devised this opening line: “We the people of Iceland wish to create a just society with equal opportunities for everyone.”

Amen. Across the world, confident societies have used process and structure to devise more thoughtful, gender-equal, adventurous and people-based constitutional processes than anything currently being suggested for Scotland.

It’s not too late to make the independence debate more practical and legislate to put women at the heart of Scottish public life – for 2014 and beyond.