Scottish politics from a female, LibDem perspective
First published in Scotsman on 12/09/2012
I DON’T agree with Nicola Sturgeon on independence, but her new role could inspire a generation of women, writes Christine Jardine
It’s almost my guilty secret. A few of my political allies may have been surprised to learn that I was pleased about Nicola Sturgeon’s move in the Scottish cabinet reshuffle.
Perhaps it’s because, as someone who stands on the opposite side of the independence debate, they thought I would see her only as a political foe.
But while I will naturally be curious to monitor her impression on the pro-independence campaign, there is another and, for me, equally important long term issue that her promotion can address.
Since the inception of the Scottish parliament, the profile of its women – with the possibly unique exception of Margo MacDonald – has failed to have the kind of agenda-changing impact many of us had hoped.
That’s not to blame the women themselves. Part of the problem has been that in recent years many of our most high-profile female MSPs – Annabel Goldie, Wendy Alexander and now Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson – have been working in opposition.
Not just in opposition to the Scottish Government of the day, but to the prevailing attitude amongst many of the political chattering classes.
Which ambitious young woman who witnessed the near vilification in parts of the media of someone as intellectually gifted as Alexander, the casual jibes thrown at Lamont, and the offhand treatment of Davidson by some, would crave a career in Scottish politics?
All of those women are talented. All of them superb role models for our daughters.
But despite its early promise, Holyrood has, until the very recent success of Lamont and Davidson, failed to create a sound platform for attracting new talent.
Ironically Westminster, which is often criticised for its misogynist tendencies, is currently a healthy stage for Scots women. Both Jo Swinson for the Liberal Democrats and Margaret Curran for Labour have followed in the footsteps of those like former Scotland Office Minister Anne McGuire and carved out leading roles amongst the current crop of MPs.
While Curran leads her Scots party at Westminster, Jo Swinson is a minister in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and has spent two years working closely with both the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Vince Cable.
I have seen first hand how a new generation of Liberal-minded young women look up to Swinson.
Her reputation for campaigning on equality issues and offering both encouragement and support to women of all ages in the party has won her widespread respect.
So where does Nicola Sturgeon’s appointment fit in?
Understandably, the news agenda seemed largely concerned with what her impact might be on the independence debate. That is important. But Holyrood’s political correspondents – almost to a man (and I do mean to a man) – seemed less concerned with her impact on either Scotland’s economic future or as a woman leading the debate.
I think that’s short-sighted. For the first time, Alex Salmond has trusted one of his government’s most influential economic roles to a woman, and the SNP has someone influencing our infrastructure who should instinctively take a much more female, and family-friendly, approach to change.
More than that, Salmond has given Sturgeon the opportunity to influence the next generation of Scottish women.
It’s just possible the First Minister was prompted by the emergence not just of the women leading the two next biggest parties at Holyrood, but of Scotland’s women at Westminster. Whatever the reason, Sturgeon should seize this opportunity to strengthen her position as a role model.
It’s a position an SNP woman has not really taken responsibility for since Margo MacDonald left the party.
As a young reporter at Radio Clyde, I used to love Sunday morning shifts when Margo came in to host her political programme. I rarely – if ever – agreed with her.
But that didn’t matter. She would spend what seemed like hours just talking to me about issues. Growing up in Glasgow, obsessed with all things political, Margo’s presence and visibility helped to convince me that women could, and should, fight for a more significant voice in the democratic process.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, we’ve come a long way since then. But we haven’t come far enough.
I want to see more strong women at the top table. So while I don’t see eye-to-eye with the Deputy First Minister when it comes to independence, I do welcome a move that gives her more input to the discussion.
Nicola Sturgeon has already proven that she has political ability. Only the most churlish of opponents would deny that she handled the health brief well, coming into her own during the swine flu outbreak in 2009.
Her reward is undoubtedly a poisoned chalice. But it also gives her that much wider opportunity and responsibility I mentioned.
Over the next two years how Nicola Sturgeon conducts her own, and her party’s, approach to the debate on our future will leave an indelible impression not just on Scottish politics but all parts of Scottish life.
A generation of teenage girls, many voting for the first time, will look to her and the others I have mentioned for evidence of whether women are indeed breaking through politics’ glass ceiling.
So I’ll make no secret of it, and I certainly don’t feel guilty. I wish Nicola Sturgeon every success in encouraging all our daughters to aim high.
• Christine Jardine is a former Liberal Democrat special adviser to the UK government