Thursday, 25 September 2014

Sturgeon's likely rise will mean clean sweep for female leaders in Holyrood

A leading figure in the Scottish National party said on Saturday there was "no doubt" that the deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, would be the next leader of the party after Alex Salmond.

That would lead to an unprecedented position in Scottish politics, with all three of the main parties led by women.

Ruth Davidson is leader of the Scottish Tories and Johann Lamont leader of Scottish Labour. Labour's shadow minister for women, Gloria De Piero, called it "truly groundbreaking".

The former SNP leader Gordon Wilson said there would only be an election if Sturgeon herself objected to being simply "crowned" without a vote.

Widely seen as having conducted herself well during the campaign for independence, and as a less divisive figure than Alex Salmond, Sturgeon said this weekend she could think of "no greater privilege" than to lead the SNP.

The party line-up would be in sharp contrast with what Jeane Freeman, a former Labour activist and founder of the successful Women for Independence (WFI) campaign group, has derided as the "men in suits" who hold the key to Scotland's future devolved powers – Ed Miliband, David Cameron, Nick Clegg – and the figure whom Scots are now calling the "fourth man", Gordon Brown.

WFI has more than 9,000 followers and its post-referendum meeting planned for early next month in Perth is so over-subscribed it is looking for a larger venue.

Freeman – whose robust exchange with TV political interviewer Andrew Neil over the NHS became a YouTube hit during the referendum campaign – has vowed to keep WFI going, saying: "We have enjoyed the past three years, and we're here to stay, whatever the result."

Other Scottish women played a prominent part on both sides: writer Lesley Riddoch, shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran, MSPs Baroness Goldie and Joan McAlpine, and MSP and columnist Kezia Dugdale. Even the Better Together election-night event was organised by an 18-year-old woman.

The Scottish parliament has achieved Nordic levels of female representation – 35% of its MSPs are women, although that has slightly dropped from what was called a "gender coup" in 1999 when the first intake of MSPs to the new Scottish parliament saw women make up almost 40%.

It puts the Scottish parliament in 22nd place in the world league table – comparing favourably with the House of Commons, which ranks 57th, with just over 20% of its MPs being women. Cameron's record on women in the cabinet is especially poor. The relatively high number of women MSPs is attributed by most to the use of gender quotas formally by Labour and informally by the SNP in the 1999 elections.

Some believe Margaret Thatcher increased women's involvement in politics in Scotland – many simply to oppose her. Dr Meryl Kenny, visiting fellow at the University of Edinburgh, believes Thatcher revived the devolution campaign north of the border. "The negative and gendered impacts of Thatcherite policies actually served to unite women from different perspectives, both inside and outside political parties," Kenny said earlier this year.

Lamont says Thatcher was far from a "sister" for women in politics although she proved that a woman could do the job for anyone who still believed they could not. "I would like to think that a lot of feminists like myself believed you didn't have to take the worst elements of male politics," she said.

De Piero welcomed the landscape in Scotland's emerging political scene. "The prospect of an all-woman lineup for the leaders of the three main parties in Scotland is truly groundbreaking, she said.

"With our Scottish leader and shadow minister for Scotland, Johann Lamont, and Margaret Curran, women's voices are front and centre for Labour in Scotland and we will continue to lead the way to make sure women are equally represented across all levels of politics – which is why over half of our candidates in target seats across the UK are women."

Paying tribute to Salmond, who announced his resignation on Friday, Sturgeon said she accepted that it inevitably raised the question of her succession, but insisted that she would not be making an immediate decision.

"I can think of no greater privilege than to seek to lead the party I joined when I was just 16. However, that decision is not for today. My priority this weekend, after a long and hard campaign, is to get some rest and spend time with my family," she said.

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