Wavering women may decide Scottish independence vote
Uncertainty over Scotland’s future a key issue issue for ‘swing’ constituency
Independence for Women campaigner Aislin Smith in Glasgow. Opinion polls show Scottish women are less likely than men to vote Yes in next month’s referendum on independence. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA
Nearly everything about the meeting in the South Leith church halls was polite: the speakers praised each other, and questions from the floor were mostly mild-mannered.
More than 350 women had come to the meeting, in search of answers that they believe they have not yet got about next month’s independence referendum.
Even the seating rules were mannerly: it was suggested that women who had made up their minds should give up their seats to those who were still undecided.
For two hours, the meeting teased through the issues, prompting candour from the speakers including Scottish deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon. With less than a month to go, both sides know that undecided women are the key “swing” constituency. For two years, they have been less likely than men to vote Yes.
The Scottish Social Attitudes survey put the gap between men and women at 12 percentage points – 27 per cent of women say that they will vote Yes, compared with 39 per cent of men – though women graduates are warming to independence, it found.
Some of the gap has been explained by declarations that Alex Salmond is unpopular. He is seen as too confrontational, sometimes boorish.
However, women’s lack of favour for independence existed even when Salmond took a break from the leadership of the Scottish National Party a decade ago.
The key issue for them is not a guarantee that a land of milk and honey awaits, but, rather, certainty that they understand what that landscape might be.
The Leith meeting illustrated priorities. Again and again, the audience displayed a demand for a more equal Scotland, but questioned the means to bring it about. Despite a relentless focus by the pro-Union Better Together campaign, however, the currency an independent Scotland will use did not emerge until the final question of the night.
Believing that the No side has “stretched the truth” by promises of Utopia, oneNo-leaning middle-aged women pressed Sturgeon on the issue of trust. Dozens of heads nodded in agreement. Replying, Sturgeon acknowledged that politicians “tend to put the most optimistic side of the argument”.
Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s rising star in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, said she has found people on the campaign who have asked her what they should do. “People are asking me what I think. I have to catch myself and tell them that they have to come to their own conclusion,” she went on.
The No campaign – her side – had “reached a really low point” after claims that Scots would be denied life-saving operations if the organ needed were in England, or Wales.
“There’s no reason why that [should] happen,” said Dugdale (33), who entered politics after a law degree and time working for the National Union of Students in Scotland.
Dugdale’s fellow No campaigner lawyer, Caitriona Headley, faced questions about the trust voters should have in Better Together.
The Yes side has long argued that an independent Scotland would be the 14th richest in the world based on gross national product per head of population.The No side, however, says it would be the 45th, just below Pakistan, a far larger, more populous country. “Isn’t that misleading, or wrong?” said a questioner.
The Yes Scotland figure is wrong, Headley argued, because it “doesn’t take into account all of the money that leaves Scotland through oil companies, and whatever”.
Excluding the money sent abroad, Scotland would be the 20th richest. “Then why didn’t you put it on [the document] instead?” the questioner retorted.
Uncomfortable with the line of questioning, Headley pointed out that she had not written the pamphlet that contained the “45th richest” claim. “It is probably misleading in that context.”
Equally, there were doubts from the floor about the sums the Yes side says will have to be spent to set up Scotland’s own fully-independent administration. Much of the architecture is already in place, Sturgeon argued. Scottish pensions are already paid from Motherwell and Dundee.
Drawing on a much-questioned estimate that changes needed to government computer systems and administrations to run an independent Scotland could be done for £200 million, the Scottish deputy first minister argued that transition deals would be made with the remaining parts of the UK.
Many were unconvinced, nodding when Dugdale said that £100 million had to be spent merging the IT systems of Scotland’s newly united police.
The debate illustrated a number of points: Scots want more powers, but they seem less than sure about the powers the Scottish Parliament already has.
While Sturgeon was pressed about the Yes side’s campaign, Dugdale faced demands for answers about the new powers that will come if Scotland votes No on September 18th.
She struggled to explain the extra powers over income tax that it has already been agreed Scotland will get next year, requiring rescue by Headley.
Throughout, the speakers emphasised agreement where it existed, insisting they accepted opponents’ good motives. Such generosity has not been typical of the debate. Illustrating the feeling, Sturgeon said she found the prospect of a future independent Scotland led by Dugdale as first minister to be “immensely appealing”.
Near the end, one woman at the back captured the mood of many, telling Dugdale: “Why can’t you and Sturgeon work together in an independent Scotland? I am an undecided voter,” she went on, “but my heart says that with people like you working together it would be a fairer Scotland.”
Soon, however, the women of Leith will have to answer the question that is being put to them, rather than the questions, or questions that they would want posed.