The Road to a Fairer Scotland? Reflections on the Scottish referendum, politics and society

The Road to a Fairer Scotland? Reflections on the Scottish referendum, politics and society

Kirstein Rummery (University of Stirling)


The 18th September 2014 was possibly one of the most exciting days to be a social policy academic living and working in Scotland. The nation went to the polls to vote on whether or not Scotland should be an independent country, with a record 88% turnout – the highest for any type of ballot since the 1959 general election. The eyes of the world, not just the UK, were on Scotland: countries with separatist and nationalist movements, as well as nations who had gained independence from larger states.

So on the night of the 18th, myself and my colleagues sat up all night, watching the results come in, talking to journalists from around the world who were as interested as we were in the outcome. In the end 55% of Scots voted to remain in the UK. As I turned up to the BBC to talk to journalists the producer of BBC News Scotland said, “Oh thank heavens we have finally found another woman.”

And he had a point. On every panel shown throughout the night there were one or two women for every four or five men. Where were the women? Come to that, where was the consideration of gender at all?

The campaign

The issue of gendered inequality was part of a distinctive Scottish policy platform in the run up to devolution in 1999: many of the campaigns around the need for devolution focused on a commitment to develop ‘Scottish solutions’ to Scottish social divisions, with women’s poverty and gender inequality becoming part of the Scottish policy ‘problem’ platform. The foundation of the Equalities and Budgetary Advisory Group, close working relationships with the third sector, particularly the Scottish Women’s Budget Group and an effort to mainstream to gender issues throughout the policy process were heralded by feminists as opening up new opportunities for gender equality in Scotland.

This was in sharp contrast to the campaign for and against an independent Scotland. In the early days neither side mentioned equalities issues at all – both the debate, and the debaters, looked very ‘male, pale and stale’: the Better Together was headed up by Alistair Darling MP, and backed by all three major political parties at Westminster – all men. In Scotland Better Together was supported by the Scottish Labour Party (headed up by Johan Lamont) and by the Scottish Conservatives (led by Ruth Davidson), but neither of these women made a point of gender equality or painted themselves or their campaign as feminist in aims or scope. Indeed, when Ruth Davidson was asked to form a Women for Better Together campaign she was decidedly unenthusiastic about it, and there were no obvious female political or civic figureheads campaigning on a feminist agenda.

A Better Together advert targeted specifically at undecided women voters drew a storm of criticism from women, on both the Yes Scotland and Better Together sides, as being patronising, depicting a woman who was a homemaker who saw politics as a male domain, and was uninformed and uninvolved in the debates. This was in contrast to the Yes Scotland campaign which whilst headed by the First Minister, Alex Salmond, also had a strong visible female figurehead in the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who made no secret of her desire to see more women enter politics. She helped to launch the White Paper Scotland’s Future, which made explicit promises to tackle women’s poverty and to invest in childcare as a social investment.

There was also a wide range of range of grassroots support for the Yes Scotland campaign, including that from groups such as Women for Independence and Mums for Change, who took an overtly gendered position n the debate. Women for Independence made their own video which depicted a range of real women making the case for why being involved in the decision was important for women. This reflects the fact that their view that more power to Scotland would involve more women directly involved in politics, and the evidence bears this out: At the moment the Scottish Parliament has 45 women MSPs (out of 129 = 35%) and Westminster has 147 women MPs (out of 650 = 23%).  This is mostly to do with the fact that the two largest parties in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP and Labour, have 17 and 18 women MSPs respectively.

However, the position of women in ‘power’ is more revealing. The Scottish Cabinet has 4 (out of 11) female Cabinet Secretaries, and 5 female junior ministers (out of 13). The Coalition cabinet at Westminster, following the 14th July reshuffle now has 5 women cabinet ministers out of 27 (in the previous cabinet there were four women out of 27). Moreover, there are more high profile women in the Scottish Cabinet who attract and mentor other female politicians, which is a demonstrated way of getting more women into Parliament, than there are at Westminster.

But as we now know, Scotland voted No to independence. So where do Scotland’s women stand now?

The vote

According to the Ashcroft poll published the day after the referendum, 56% of women voted no (compared to 53% of men). 47% of No voters cited uncertainty and their principle reasons for voting no, particularly over the economy, currency, EU membership, pensions, and so on. No crystal ball could have removed uncertainty on the former – for every economist predicting economic disaster for an independent Scotland, there was one predicting a stronger welfare state and sustainable economic growth. But certainty on the latter issues could have been achieved with a pre-referendum agreement between Westminster and Holyrood that failed to materialise. Scotland, particularly Scotland’s women, remained unsure about the future.

However, social divisions other than gender were far more apparent in the voting patterns –in areas with relatively high unemployment, 51% of voters voted Yes; whereas the average in areas of low unemployment the average Yes vote was 39%. Geographical socio-economic factors also were evident: the four local authorities with a majority yes vote (Dundee (57.3%), West Dunbartonshire (54.0%), Glasgow (53.5%) and North Lanarkshire (51.1% – all areas with the highest unemployment count and areas of multiple deprivation. The four local authorities with the highest proportion of No votes (Orkney (67.2%) and Shetland (63.7%), Scottish Borders (66.6%) and Dumfries & Galloway (65.7%) are all areas with relatively low levels of unemployment and multiple deprivation, and all bar Shetland had relatively high numbers of older people (73% of over 65s overall voted No).

So the poorest people voted for an independent Scotland, as did the young (71% of 16-17 year olds – first time voters – voted Yes). Moreover, 25% of No voters believed that further powers would be devolved to Scotland in the event of a No vote. Over 2 million voters wanted policy decisions for Scotland to be taken in Scotland.

A desire for significant change that went unheard. Or did it?

Scotland’s Future: a fairer society?

It is impossible to imagine Scotland’s political and social future being the same.

In the 36 hours after the referendum result was announced, over 4,000 disaffected Labour members switched their membership to the Scottish National Party (it is now the third largest party in membership in the UK), and the Green party and Scottish Socialist Party also report a significant rise in membership.

If the Scottish Nationalist Party are going to remain the leaders of a campaign that is now focused around a fairer future for Scotland rather than independence, it is clear that their mandate will be much stronger if they can maintain the disparate elements of the Yes campaign with them: the disaffected Labour voters wanting to get rid of the Conservatives at Westminster, the Greens, the feminists, those concerned with the future of welfare and the NHS, and those believing in localisation of government and bringing politics and policy closer to the people. Their mandate to achieve a fairer Scotland would also be hugely strengthened if they could bring a proportion of the disaffected No voters as well as the Yes voters with them.

This would probably involve a shift in their political focus and priorities away from full independence at all costs, and towards a greater focus on social justice for Scotland, addressing some of the key issues that voters on BOTH sides of the referendum debate thought they were voting for: a commitment to social justice; a commitment to equality; a commitment to universal welfare provision; a commitment to sustainable, green economic growth; a commitment to tackle poverty, health inequality, and social division; a commitment to invest in the infrastructure of Scotland’s economic future, including investing in childcare and long-term care services; and greater involvement in civic society in the process of politics.

If there had been a Yes majority, there would have been a clear path to a more participatory style of governance in Scotland which would have benefited women and possibly led to greater equality. The White Paper on the possible constitutional settlement explicitly promised that the third sector (including women’s groups) The Scottish Government has always engaged with interest groups and civic society more comprehensively than its Westminster counterpart and there were clear indications that this path would continue to be followed in the negotiations up to full independence – moreover equality and fairness were to be at the heart of Scotland’s Constitution.

However, we now have a No result, and the Prime Minister has announced the Smith Commission on Scotland’s constitutional future that will have cross-party membership, but no civic involvement. The chance to harness the energy and commitment to a better, fairer future for Scotland’s women demonstrated by groups like Women for Independence and Mums for Change has been lost. Scotland does not need to be independent to work for a fairer future for its citizens: it would have resulted in powerful policy levers to achieve change, but it was never going to be a magic bullet to create a feminist (or socialist) utopia. So, with the option of independence now off the table, can a new kind of civic-led politics emerge? Can society – particularly women’s groups – seize the day and work for their vision of a fairer future for Scotland? Or will we be returning to ‘male pale and stale’ politics?


Kirstein Rummery is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Stirling where she is Director of the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies. She is also a member of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change