Monday, 31 March 2014

What Do Women Want... From Independence?

The coalition government's attitude to women amounts to an attack and aims to put women back in the home with no way out. Whether this is a conscious ideological decision, or a cumulative effect of various insensitive policies is uncertain; but I've long realised that it's a waste of time trying to figure out whether coalition ministers are evil or just deeply stupid - it's much more useful to spend energy fighting them, rather than trying to understand them.

The coalition have threatened to scrap the Public Sector Equality Duty (which aims to protect women and minorities from discrimination in the public sector) by characterising it as nothing more than red tape, a stance criticised by the Fawcett Society. The Fawcett Society have also produced a report on the impact of the coalition's austerity agenda on women. Reduced public services, the attacks on disabled and unemployed women who often have caring responsibilities to deal with while trying not to be sanctioned; these things badly impact the mental and physical well-being of women across the UK.

On top of this, last week a report by HMIC showed the extent of failures by police forces in England and Wales when dealing with domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is being treated as a non-crime in a society where women are struggling to make ends meet in their present situations, never mind as they try to exit a relationship, or rebuild their lives and the lives of their children. At the same time the Department of Work and Pensions have announced Universal Credit as part of their evil/ridiculously ill-thought-out welfare reforms; this means that one payment per month would be paid only to one member of a household. So while in previous years women in abusive relationships, or women in relationships with men suffering addiction issues, could rely on child benefit payments and their own job seekers allowance to put food on the table, that can no longer be the case under Universal Credit. When two people on benefits are in a relationship and living together they must decide on a single claimant. This surrender of fiscal autonomy would be challenging to people in a healthy relationship - in an abusive relationship we can guess who that claimant would be and the consequences could be grave. This renders women on benefits financially dependent on the man of the house, a sickening consequence of Ian Duncan Smith's plans.

The signs are that many of these problems in Scotland could be eased or eradicated by a move towards independence. We would be able to formulate a more ethical welfare system, hopefully one that takes account of the need for autonomy in romantic relationships and recognises the rights of people on benefits to have such relationships without having to give up their financial independence. Policing, already devolved from Westminster, has been recognised as more sensitive in tackling domestic abuse and a move towards a more socially just society could mean more funding for domestic abuse services, as opposed to the severe cuts taking place under the austerity agenda. Also, the Scottish government's policy on childcare has become a flagship policy of the independence debate and will result in more women with the choice to work, more women with financial independence.

The choice would seem to be a clear one for Scotland's women, but yet polls show that women are far less likely to vote for independence than men. The reason for this is not obvious. Some, including Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, argue that this is because women care more about their children's future than fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants patriotism. But even so, when one looks at the evidence it seems that the children of an independent Scotland will have child care and early years support; they can rely on a safe, nationalised healthcare system; their society will be more equal and more fair than it would be if we remained in the union.

I suspect the opinions of women might be more unionist (for many the default position in the debate) because they have less access to the facts. Women with caring responsibilities, with jobs, and with little time to spare scouring the internet for the facts on independence might be less likely to hear the message that screams loud and clear from alternative media - this is your chance! Seize it with both hands!

A breakdown in the polls seems to show that uncertainty is the greatest differentiating factor; women are more likely to be uncertain about the risks of Scottish independence than men. Again, this could in part be caused by women having less time to access alternative media, though a full analysis of the psychology of women and 'certainty' in a patriarchal society would be interesting. For the purposes of this current debate it might be worth simply remembering that we all know one thing's for sure - if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself. Grassroots involvement and direct engagement are the keys to making people feel empowered and to making them confident in their own ability. If we have that confidence then we will be sure of independence's success, and sure of our power to weather the risks. It's not about appealing to women as a special interest group, it's about equal involvement.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Why it's a Yes from me

In my last post I wrote about the Westminster government and the tactics they're using in an attempt to scare the Scottish people into voting No and upholding the status quo. These kind of hierarchical power relationships are inherent in patriarchal capitalist societies and one could argue that there's nothing to say that the Scottish government wouldn't act the same way if the Shoe of Superior Power was on the other foot. On the face of it that's a fair point, so this post is about why I'm voting Yes and why I see an independent Scotland as an opportunity to move beyond the patriarchal top-down systems that we've lived under for so long.

The most important opportunity that an independent Scotland offers is a chance to create a written constitution. I don't think the significance of this has been fully unpacked in the mainstream (lamestream!) media, surprise surprise. The UK doesn't have a written constitution to protect the rights of its citizens and the role of the state in making sure those rights are upheld. Of course, we are understood to have human rights, but in practice human rights legislation is difficult to access, particularly when someone is poor or vulnerable, a time when your rights are more likely to be infringed. A written constitution could enshrine the existing rights of the Scottish people and possibly even give us greater recognition under the law. Civil liberties have been eroded in the UK since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 and the effects of this on ordinary citizens are increasingly being understood (more on this in a future post). This is our chance to create a document that protects us from the state. From a feminist perspective I would particularly like to see a right to bodily integrity of some kind (with provisos for emergency medical intervention) and explicit recognition of women's rights and social justice in the constitution. A draft of the constitution will be released in the summer, but after the referendum the SNP white paper says that the constitution will be subject to a constitutional committee, with input from the people of Scotland; that's the crucial time for feminists to get our sleeves rolled up and make sure that the rights of our great- great-granddaughters are protected in this document.

Another important factor for me is Scotland's electoral system. People are elected to the Scottish government through a kind of proportional representation and this means that the Scottish political makeup is far less likely to stagnate into the kind of two party system that effectively keeps control of the Westminster government. This is beneficial to smaller, more ethical parties such as the Greens and this means that politicians have to work harder to actively gain our votes, rather than just making a half-hearted effort to be slightly less bad than the opposition. Hopefully this will help us to have a greater influence over more controversial aspects of the future for Scotland suggested by the white paper, such as the continuing recognition of the Royal Family, the future of our currency, and our environmental impact (particularly in light of the oil that most people in the mainstream seem happy to suck out of the ground without a thought for climate change).

One of the most inspirational books that I've read in preparation for the referendum is Lesley Riddoch's Blossom (2013) (link is to Amazon, but it should also be available in your local library if you're in Scotland). Her vision of greater political and social involvement for the Scottish people is truly inspiring. Ceding control of local communities to people who actually live in those communities would be a great way to empower people who have felt not just politically, but socially disenfranchised for decades. I don't think this would be a cure-all for society's ills overnight, but over time I think people can start to get excited about the place where they live rather than the current lack of power and the stifling of imagination that we see in some of Scotland's most deprived areas. The policy of greater local governance is said to be enshrined in the draft constitution but whether we get independence or not, we really have to do something to involve marginalised communities.

This is one of the reasons the current level of debate in the mainstream is so frustrating. Quibbling over the currency, or whether one company or another might move their operations to England; these are issues for those who already have a comfortable, wealthy life. There is very little recognition that Scotland's existence in the union is at the cost of the lives and talent of entire classes of our people, people that the current system seems happy to sacrifice.

Of course, independence is not a guarantee that any of these things will happen. There are some people who say that they are unconvinced by the SNP's 'promises' and this is leading them towards a No vote. To those people I would say; you've been disenfranchised too long. Your country has had very little power for centuries and its culture has been marginalised. Real power is not having other people offer you a list of options, a menu from which you can choose - real power is getting involved, reaching out and taking what you need, it's getting in the kitchen and making your own meal. This is why the Yes campaign have such a strong grassroots element whereas the Better Together campaign don't. Yes campaigners understand that if we want something, we have to work for it ourselves - if we want power we have to make it happen through hard work and through supporting each other. If the SNP aren't doing something that you want then start your own political party. Start a pressure group. Write to everyone you can think of. Run to be a local councilor. Some of these things are easier said than done, but take whatever small step you can in that direction. Right now I can tell you, I and other grassroots campaigners will have your back. The time of other people laying out our options is coming to an end, it's time for us to make our own decisions. It's time to vote Yes.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why Scotland is the woman in this "relationship"

This post is going to contain some references to psychological domestic violence.

One of the reasons I started thinking about how feminism relates to the independence debate is because of the way the referendum has been described, again and again, as the break-up of a romantic couple. It's going to be "a messy divorce" (The Economist), "divorces seldom finish amicably" (The Telegraph) and it looks like this divorce is increasingly "hostile" (according to the former Scottish Secretary via BBC News). This was probably most infamously seen in the awful Katie Hopkins clip in which (at 1:42) she compares Scotland to a wife who wants to leave and take everything with her (managing to be both anti-Scottish and misogynistic in one fell swoop).

Writing for The Guardian, Libby Brooks noticed this trend and, referring to Dale Spender's Man Made Language (1980), blames this comparison on good old-fashioned sexism, commenting (quite rightly) that, "whenever a party or an institution or even a country is to be portrayed as feckless, fickle or flighty, writers head straight for the big book of gender generalisations". But, to me anyway, it feels like something more complicated is going on.

One of the reasons I have for this is that the metaphor of the relationship is not just being used by right-wingers and free-marketeers. It is also being used by Scottish people who want a Yes vote. On the National Collective website, Kezia Kinder says, "David Cameron was right, the UK is like a family. But it’s a family that doesn’t work, so come September 18th, let’s file for divorce” and Lady Alba in her hilarious pro-indy cover of "Bad Romance" compares voting "Naw" to a masochistic relationship with lyrics such as " I want your love though I know it's wrang, I like being told whit I should dae". It should be noted that when Scottish or pro-independence people use this metaphor they're not recasting England as the woman, the gender difference remains the same.

This is probably because everyone recognises the power imbalance between Scotland and England; it's clear that England (read: London) holds the power at the moment, that's what this whole thing is about after all! So Scotland is the woman, despite the raging, self-destructive masculinity some of our men are so famous for and the relative effeminacy of the posh boys of the Tory front bench.

I'm going to make a more controversial argument, though, rather than simply leave it at that. I think that the rhetoric of the debate hasn't been so much like a healthy relationship, but more like the fucked up push-me-pull-you of an abusive relationship. Lady Alba was joking when she said that our relationship with the Tories was masochistic, but now I'm seriously saying that the way the Tories (and the other Westminster parties, lest we forget) treat this country is abusive, and the parallels with domestic violence are the source of the impact of the divorce/separation metaphor. It's just that, like in so many relationships between individuals, you get so used to the low level abuse, those microaggressions and the gaslighting, that you stop noticing after a while that something is wrong. You accept "abusive" as normal. And this isn't just a problem for the Scottish people, it's a problem for everyone in the UK (but I'll get to that in a later post).

First of all, England (read: those who hold power and use it to forward Westminster's No message) as Scotland's abusive husband. They say you're not pulling your weight. That you only get by on their sufferance, because they bail you out. They say no one else would want you (the EU). They say that, if you decide to leave, don't expect them to let you have an easy life, they'll do everything in their power to make everything as difficult for you as they possibly can. They have control of your money (the pound), your financial independence (the Bank of England), they even decide who you can talk to and limit your contact with the outside world (through the BBC and other biased media). They have control of your transport, you can't move freely without them checking on you (through border controls). But they love you really- they just don't want you to go.

This is the kind of rhetoric we're hearing from south of the border. If this were a relationship between two individuals, you would call that an abusive relationship. If your friend told you that this was the way her boyfriend spoke to her you'd do everything you could to support her, you'd worry for her health, you'd pray that she'd find the opportunity to leave.

In Scotland we have major problems with domestic abuse. There's a lot of male violence against women in the home and the Scottish government tends to recognise it as an important area for preventative measures.  Professor Rachel Pain, writing for Scottish Women's Aid, called it "everyday terrorism". It's a process by which someone uses their intimate knowledge of you and your life to control you, to close down your options and to make you feel like you can't leave. I think the reason why we've kept talking about a "divorce", and the reason why we've kept Scotland as the "woman" is because we're recognising this dynamic, the invisible background to so many of our own lives, on a subconscious level. I don't think Yes campaigners are necessarily less sexist than their Better Together equivalents, I don't think that's why we keep the gender dynamic the same when we use the metaphor of the relationship to talk about the referendum. I think it's because we've seen these tactics before, and we recognise them. No wonder they call themselves Project Fear.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Feminist Fights and the Independence Debate

I'm an academic and English Literature is my main area of study (but another post on the English/Scottish Literature difference at a later date!). As the referendum debate has developed I started to realise that I hardly know any Scottish history, I'm so unaware of the culture of this country I call home. So, in an effort to remedy this I picked up James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still (2010). It had a 'As heard on BBC Radio 4' sticker on the front and, as someone still very much infected by the cultural imperialism of 'Britain', that was enough to convince me it was to be my window into this strange world we call 'Scotland'.

Honestly, I couldn't have made a better choice. The novel takes its title from an Edwin Morgan poem and consists of a series of stories that, together, build up a picture of twentieth-century Scotland. For someone who had never heard of the 'tartan Tories' (that was the SNP's nickname back in the day), the Scottish Liberation Army blowing up post boxes (really!), or that Margaret Thatcher voted to support a woman's right to choose it's been a history lesson in the form of a massively engaging literary novel.

Anyway, what has this got to do with feminism and the independence debate? Well, the connection between the two has been in my mind for months but not expressed in any of the many blog posts or newspaper articles that I read. Until I came to this passage in And the Land Lay Still:

"A conference was held in Glasgow, in the theatre behind the Mitchell Library. A Saturday in July 1983. Three weeks earlier Margaret Thatcher had won her second General Election, routing the Labour Party under Michael Foot's leadership. The conference organiser had a big question for those attending: 'Which way now for the Scottish left?'...But on the day some were even unhappy about that designation. They felt that the adjective somehow betrayed the spirit of the noun it described. Someone was selling copies of a poster that said SCOTTISH WRITERS AGAINST THE BOMB. On it were the names of dozens of writers opposed to nuclear weapons on the Clyde. An argument started. 'Oh, you can't say that.' 'Can't say what?' 'If you say "Scottish writers" you're excluding other writers who are also against the Bomb. That's parochial, that is.'... A fight almost broke out." (And the Land Lay Still, 530-1).

Anyone reading who hasn't had much experience of feminist spaces might still be scratching their heads as to why I've just quoted this slab of a passage, but I think if you've spent much time in feminist spaces (particularly online) you'll be more than aware of similar debates. This passage is set in 1983, but some of the same debates are happening now, as we face the referendum. And, I think, we who have cut our political teeth in the world of feminism are well placed to tackle these kinds of issues, given that we spend a lot of our time thinking about them.

The equivalence, in this passage, of Scotland with 'parochialism' is very much what feminists are accustomed to experiencing when they support women-only spaces, or anything-only spaces, in feminism. There is a lack of understanding on the part of mainstream thought. Surely, if you're fighting for a cause, you want as many people as possible to follow you? This is how we think under a democracy, where numbers are everything. It's the same when someone picks a campaign to work on. There are always those voices asking how you can focus on Page 3 when FGM is such an issue? Or, what's the point of having a woman on a bank note when two women a week are being murdered by their partners?

But sometimes, numbers aren't everything. Sometimes the exclusion of dominant (male) voices can be conducive to that. The same goes for other feminist groups, who choose to restrict their membership by race, or colour, or political affiliation or whatever. There's not just strength in numbers, there's strength in having people around you who understand.

And sometimes, you see an issue where you can make a measurable difference. And maybe it's not going to destroy patriarchy by the time you're done, but you can achieve something, however small, and build on that success. And the wonderful thing is, your campaign does not damage other feminist campaigns with different messages. It makes them stronger.

The other thing to recognise here is the potential for a multiplicity of voices and positions. As well as SCOTTISH WRITERS AGAINST THE BOMB, or 'Feminists for Independence - no men allowed', there is plenty of space for other groups to be formed. WRITERS AGAINST THE BOMB and 'Mixed Gender Feminists for Independence' will also garner a wide following, and can do so without stepping on each others toes, but with mutual support and respect.

This is one of the things that the feminist movement has in common with the independence movement. In grassroots organisation we understand that 'different' doesn't have to mean 'in opposition to'. Realising and expressing our identity doesn't mean we want to crush or silence the 'other'. We make our own spaces, but we also try to make space for others. This is what I think people miss when they ask the SNP to come up with all the answers, to promise (and sign on the dotted line) what will happen if we vote Yes. You can't really blame people for this, when you're accustomed to decisions made through party politics you expect to choose things from a menu rather than get in the kitchen and roll up your sleeves - you also expect to be lied to, so that whatever a politician promises you'll never be satisfied. We should all realise that no one can promise us anything, and certainly no one can make us believe - if you want something done then you can take the first step towards making it happen. Start a campaign, knock on some doors, start a Facebook group or a conversation with someone you suspect is on your side. You will find support, there's a whole country out here to help you out; sometimes you just have to be the first one to raise your voice and say what needs to be done.

Feminism and Scottish Independence - 6 Months to Go

This post is the one in which I explain what kind of things you can expect from this blog over the coming months. I'm a feminist campaigner and an academic. I'll also be voting Yes in the coming Scottish referendum. There are many thoughts about these topics all over the internet, but I haven't seen some of my own positions reflected in the debates as of yet, to the point where I've finally decided to put my reputation where my offline mouth is and start to write some of them down. I'm going to write about what feminism has to teach us about the Scottish referendum, and the future of an independent Scotland. Feminist campaigning and activism has taught me a lot (although I'm by no means an expert!) and I want to put those two worlds together to see what we get. I haven't heard enough from feminists on the topic of independence, though I know many Scottish feminists are fellow Yes voters - so I'm going to give some of my observations here. You almost certainly won't agree with everything I write - but the internet is a big, beautiful diverse place and you're welcome to write your own blogs representing your point of view if you feel the need. Here we go!