The Glasgow Women’s Library has, of late, taken up residence in the former Bridgeton Public Library, a beautiful building constructed in 1903 with Andrew Carnegie’s money. It is a snug fit, feminism inside philanthropism, and right now there is a third idea being discussed, over endless cups of tea, by library users – Scottish independence.
“This is, perhaps, the biggest decision we’ll ever make,” says Sue John, a member of the management team. “You can’t underline often enough the importance of women using their vote. Independence doesn’t have to be something that happens to us. We are the ones who can change things.”
That fact is well understood by strategists from Better Together and Yes Scotland, both campaigns having engaged in a prolonged wooing of the female vote. Women are considered key to victory as polling indicates that a high proportion have yet to make up their minds. One library user who did not wish to be interviewed formally (we’ll call her Maggie) is in her fifties and has never voted in a general election but is going to vote in the referendum – for which side, she has not decided. She hears ordinary people talking about the referendum on the bus, at the shop, at the doctor’s, and makes the connection between this decision and a future in which debt and poor health need not be inevitabilities. On women like Maggie, no longer feeling quite so powerless, the future of the country may rest.
Glasgow Women’s Library was founded in 1991 in order to celebrate the lives and achievements of women and to work towards empowerment and equality. It is home to hundreds of thousands of books and archive items including a beautiful brooch once worn by a suffragette, with gleaming stones in that movement’s colours – green, purple and white. No-one here is in any doubt about the struggles women went through to secure the right to vote, an awareness that informs the library’s present drive to help and encourage women to engage in the referendum and make sure their voice is heard.
Everyone has their own reasons, their own story. Alice Sharp is 66, a retired researcher from Cambuslang, visiting the library today in order to attend a group discussion in which women imagine the sort of ideal Scotland in which they would like to live. She’s voting Yes.
“I don’t feel I have any choice,” she says. “I’ve got a problem with the way people who are sick and disabled are being treated. My daughter was an intensive care nurse. She picked up an infection at work and died of it three years ago. She had applied for sickness benefit and disability living allowance, but was turned down. She was actually waiting for her appeal when she died. Because of all the negative stereotyping around benefits, Joanne hated having to claim them, but she needed to. Given that experience and what I’m reading about Westminster’s increasing sanctioning of benefits, I’m a definite Yes. I’m hopeful that in an independent Scotland attitudes at least will be challenged.”
Madge Welsh is voting No. She’s 54 and lives in Blackhill, a deprived area. She started coming for literacy classes, having left school at 11 and spent much of her life caring for relatives. The many years of putting others first has, she says, led to her suffering from clinical depression. Coming to the community of the library gives her a sense of self-belief.
Most of the women interviewed for this article who said they were voting Yes were going to do so because they believed an independent Scotland would be a fairer society in which endemic problems of poverty and poor health could be tackled more effectively and with greater will. Welsh simply doesn’t believe it.
“The SNP have had seven years in control of the health budget,” she says. “People where I live don’t care about no-smoking campaigns or reducing their alcohol intake. Their lives are that miserable they’ve nothing to live for, and they’d like to get out of it quicker by living ten years less. There’s nobody round about offering a job, a decent wage where you don’t have to struggle every week. But no government, no country is going to give them that kind of hope. Nothing much would change for ordinary people with independence. Maybe for the middle classes it might be a better society, but not for them at the lower end. It doesn’t matter who’s in power. Until you get a society where people are valued more than shareholders, the poor will still have to struggle.”
So, even though she herself has suffered as a result of benefits reforms, she doesn’t think independence would improve her life and the lives of people like her?
“I think it would actually be worse because an independent Scotland just won’t have the money. Working tax credits that people need to boost their wages, free prescriptions, free education – things like that would have to go.
“If there had been an honest assessment of the cost of independence for Scotland, I would probably be more inclined to give it a go. It’s like having a budget for your house and saying, ‘I’ve only got £4.90 left, I cannae put a fiver in my meter.’”
Anxiety about the economy is the main motivation for No-voting women, it seems. Anne Donovan, a 58-year-old optometrist from Bearsden, worries that an independent Scotland would not be able to afford to maintain standards in health and social care. She worries about her pension. She worries about her son’s job. “He is a marine engineer with BAE Systems working in Rosyth on the carrier. If we became independent, where will those jobs go? If the carrier goes, Rosyth just plummets.”
Other mothers, especially those whose children are still young, say they are voting Yes because they see that as being the best way to secure a better future for their kids. Nicola Burkhill, 34, has two sons, aged three and six. “Since my children have been born I’ve worried that I might do something that will mess them up for the rest of their lives,” she laughs. “But I don’t feel that with the referendum. My gut instinct tells me this is the right thing to do. I grew up as one of Thatcher’s children and can’t see what a Westminster government has ever done for Scotland. We’ve always been the poor neighbour and there’s a chance to not be that any more.”
The received wisdom that women are risk-averse and therefore voting No is not borne out at the library. Most interviewees are voting Yes, and say that staying in the United Kingdom is more of a risk, given the rightward drift of ideology. The widespread idea that Alex Salmond is disliked by women and that this is damaging his campaign gets short shrift here, too. Most, regardless of how they intend to vote, say he is irrelevant, that they can see beyond his leadership. Nicola Sturgeon, despite her gender, is not especially favoured. “She has a wee ring of Margaret Thatcher about her,” is what you hear.
Tabassum Niamat is a 37-year-old mother of three, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, born and bred in Glasgow, fluent in Punjabi, Urdu and Weegie. She will be voting Yes, as will her 17-year-old daughter. Her husband, a taxi driver who came to Scotland from Pakistan 16 years ago is voting No, as are many first generation immigrants in her family. She thinks they are troubled by post-partition bitterness between India and Pakistan and feel positive about Britishness; that red passport, for someone who was not born to it, means a lot.
Niamat had been swithering a little over whether to vote Yes, but has been driven to it, she says, by the “aggressive language” of the Better Together campaign.
“It’s like a separation, a divorce becoming very bitter,” she says. “We’re told, ‘If you leave, you’re not going to get the pound.’ It’s like someone bullying and pressurising you into staying in a relationship you don’t like. There’s that rebel nature within us that goes: ‘You tell us we can’t do this? All right, fine, we’ll show you.’”
What’s striking is the energy and enthusiasm with which the referendum is being discussed among these women. No hesitancy; no stridency either. The debate here feels measured, motivated not by tribal loyalty, but rather with a view to building a better society for one’s friends and family and those yet unborn. The questions, therefore, are handled carefully and with respect, like antique jewellery, like that suffragette brooch. Everyone, whether Yes or No, senses that this is a precious moment in the history of the country and they wish their own conduct to intensify its lustre rather than dim it with harsh words and dull thoughts.
“That’s the great thing about having this chance,” says Maya Shand, a 28-year-old student. “It’s a time to dream.”
Yes campaign struggles to make gender difference, writes John Curtice
THE Yes campaign has put a lot of effort into wooing women voters. The signature policy of the independence White Paper was a promise of more state funded childcare. One of the more prominent organisations campaigning for a Yes vote has been Women for Independence. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon has been second to none in the prominence of her role in the Yes campaign.
Yet it has all been seemingly to little effect. On average the six companies that have been polling regularly in this campaign suggest that, once the Don’t Knows are left aside, 49 per cent of men will vote Yes but only 39 per cent of women. That ten point gap is much the same now as it was a year ago.
Why women are so reluctant to back independence has been the subject of much speculation. There is, after all, no evidence that they are any less likely than men to acknowledge a Scottish identity. Some suggest it is all Alex Salmond’s fault and that his allegedly aggressive and arrogant style particularly puts off women. This explanation is facile. The gender gap was just as much in evidence between 2000 and 2004 when the more emollient John Swinney was SNP leader.
More surprisingly, perhaps, women do not take a markedly different view from men on the issue that seems to be most important in voters’ minds when deciding whether to vote Yes or No – whether or not they think independence would be good or bad for Scotland’s economy. In our most recent ICM poll, 45 per cent of women said that independence would be bad for Scotland’s economy, just as did 45 per cent of men.
There is, however, one key way in which women’s attitudes towards independence are different from those of men. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey far more women (73 per cent) than men (62 per cent) say they either feel unsure about the consequences of independence or do not know what they would be – and voters who feel uncertain about the consequences are inclined to hold back from supporting independence even if they suspect that things might well turn out OK.
That still leaves us with another question – why are women more likely to say they are unsure? Are they simply more averse to a perceived risk? Or are they being rational in acknowledging the future is difficult to predict? Whatever the reason it leaves the Yes side with a considerable problem.
• John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University