Women and Independence: Natalie McGarry’s Glasgow Uni Referendum Speech

This is the text of Natalie McGarry’s speech at the event “Gender and Independence,” which is part of Glasgow University’s series of events in the run-up to their mock independence referendum on February 21st.

Since devolution, at the top of the political spectrum, there has been a shift in the balance of power within Scottish political parties.  Two of the main opposition parties have female leaders in form of Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont, while a third, the Greens, has a gender-balanced leadership.  And the minister overseeing the issue we are here to discuss and debate tonight – independence – is our Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.  Sadly, however, the Scottish Parliament has gone backwards; it now has a lower proportion of women members than it did in 1999, when Scotland’s new parliament boasted the 3rd highest number of women representatives of any legislature in the world.

Meanwhile the Coalition government cabinet in London boasts 18 men out of a membership of 22, and none occupying the 3 offices of state.  However, the representation in wider politics and civic society across Scotland is hugely disproportionately male. Political parties could and should be doing much, much more to empower and promote women within their structures, and in particular at the grassroots, where nearly all political careers are fostered and begin.  But we have a real chance to empower those women from the grassroots and in communities up to those in seats of power further by giving them the kind of opportunities to move their countries forward that the female leaders of Denmark, Iceland, Australia, Germany and Brazil have.

And yet, whilst the balance of political power at the top of political parties slowly changes, the balance of power in society, and the balance of wealth remains hideously imbalanced. I certainly don’t see any future independent Scottish Government making the kind of cruel and needless cuts to basic social welfare provision that we’ve seen from the UK government recently.  I can’t envisage a time when someone like Johann Lamont could stand up as a Minister in Holyrood and propose something as disgraceful as the Bedroom Tax.  I trust the people of Scotland not to elect a government that sends young women straight from university onto the dole queue and then to “work” in part-time manual or unskilled jobs whilst cutting their access to assistance as the “working poor”.  I don’t envisage any Scottish Government imposing tuition fees on students which has led to a growing number of young women in education entering prostitution. I trust the people of Scotland not to support a government which imposes Welfare Reform measures which have a disproportionate effect on women.

Britain is the 4th most unequal country in the developed world. Our welfare services and pensions are poor in comparison to the Scandinavian countries and Germany.  And they are about to become even worse with new welfare changes.  Scottish Governments of all parties have shown a real commitment to social services in the services which are devolved.  The very worst figures that the Treasury could produce about the income of an independent Scottish Government said that we could support our existing services but it would cost us a pound a year each extra under pre-existing commitments.  Given the decisions we have seen in Scotland, women should have every confidence that Scottish control over all of our social and taxation services would be fairer and more inclusive.  We can also look at how the position of women in countries like Norway, Finland, Denmark can be a model for Scotland. Independence can give women in Scotland new opportunities.

The issue the ‘No’ campaign have to address is why they don’t trust women in Scotland to make those kinds of choices for and of ourselves.

The 2012 Gender Equity Index, measuring the differences between men and women across factors such as education and economic participation, found the top 5 places occupied by Scandinavian and Nordic countries – Norway, as in so many other measures of social progress sits at number 1 – whilst the United Kingdom languished in 23rd place, behind Rwanda and Namibia amongst others.  The high standards of those countries – though by no means perfect – weren’t achieved by waiting for the male, pale and stale in boardrooms and committee meetings to get round to acting.  That would mean asking men to voluntarily give up some of their power. They were achieved because women challenged their governing classes to act in their interests, and in systems such as the Scandinavian model, where the size and demography of the population means a closer relationship between electorate and government institutions, this meant a transition to a framework of gender equality than we can only dream of under the Westminster monolith.

I mention Rwanda and Namibia there, by the way, not to belittle or speak pejoratively of them – quite the opposite.  It’s disgraceful that developing countries like them can achieve so much more than the hyper-wealthy elite that dictates what happens at Westminster.  And just as I see an independent Scotland start the fightback for social progress at home, I believe we can use the wealth of this country to help those abroad tackle inequality of all kinds – gender, economic, and social.  We made a start under Donald Dewar and subsequent Scottish Executives, and moved further under the current Scottish Government.  But independence gives us the chance to show our humanity and solidarity with developing countries, and in doing so help influence the progress of female empowerment in these states.

Two of the main additional powers that independence will bring are defence and foreign affairs and welfare benefits and taxation.  We know from polling that women are more opposed to wars and nuclear weapons than men and we know that they put a high priority on social services and social justice.

The British state has defined itself largely as a military state. Labour and Tory ministers have boasted about ‘punching above our weight’ in military action.  We had an appalling record during the Blair/Brown years of perpetual warfare at massive cost. We have 200 nuclear bombs based close to us at Faslane and are in the process of a Trident modernisation programme.  An independent Scotland would not have gone into an illegal war in Iraq and most political opinion in Scotland would favour a ban on nuclear weapons in Scotland as New Zealand did. On the basis of polling over the last few years, it is possible to posit that women would support this.

I don’t see independence as an overnight panacea, turning Scotland in the blink of an eye into the equal of the progressive states of Scandinavia and beyond, or overnight seeing our political parties accurately reflect the make-up of the people they seek to represent.  But I do see decision-making being returned to Scotland as giving us the ability to shape the kind of future we – men and women – want, a future determined by a population who want to see a country that values all its people and whose aim, amongst others, should be to one day take that number 1 slot from Norway.

Independence is our beautiful opportunity to shape the future of the kind of country we want to live in using the lessons of our friends across the world to better represent the values of fairness and inclusivity which we hold dear.

Natalie McGarry
Women For Independence – Independence For Women


About Natalie McGarry

Natalie studied Law and International Government Diplomacy at university. She currently works in the public sector in Glasgow and is an active member of Women For Independence. She like whisky, but then, who normal doesn't?