As Scotland weighs independence, do women hold the key?

Scots will vote on Sept. 18 – and women have emerged as the ultimate swing vote. Though many Scots are skeptical, the Scottish National Party has vowed that it will shape an independent Scotland in the image of Scandinavia, which sets high standards on gender equality and social justice.

Paul Hackett/Reuters
The Scottish Saltire flag (l.) and the British Union flag are seen outside a shop in the centre of Edinburgh, Scotland Sept. 12, 2014. The referendum on Scottish independence will take place on Sept. 18.

When Susan Robertson, a young Scottish mother in Glasgow, looks at the child-care options in front of her, she doesn’t see a lot of choice.

Parents in the United Kingdom face some of the highest costs for care in Europe. In neighboring nations, by contrast, full-day, state-funded preschool is the norm.

But in an independent Scotland, about which Scots will vote in a referendum next week, women's options would expand, says Ms. Robertson, a working mother and founder of “Mums for Change.” More broadly, she argues, the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) will refashion Scotland as a more caring social democracy on the Scandinavian model, free from Westminster's conservative policies. 

“I’m not naive, I know we would not wake up on Sept. 19 in Utopia,” says Robertson, her red Converse tennis shoes jumping as she bounces her 8-month-old on her lap at a Glasgow cafe.  “But Westminster has very different priorities than Scotland.”

Whether Scottish women will agree with her or not at the polls will play a defining role in the outcome Sept. 18. Women interviewed by the Monitor say that what they care most about is not notions of independent statehood but whether their lives will be better, their bank accounts bigger, and their children’s prospects brighter. It's a theme of caution that academics and pollsters have been registering since the beginning of the campaign. 

"I think when you’ve got an axis of risk versus caution, men are that much more likely to go for the risky choice, and women more likely to go for the cautious choice,” says Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, a polling firm.

The big question is: Which scenario represents the risky choice? Many women originally viewed the independence campaign as a macho endeavor, a point that was underscored by a vast gender gap in voter intentions. But women's attitudes have been shifting. The share of women saying they planned to vote "Yes" surged from 33 percent to 47 percent in a YouGov poll out last weekend – the same poll that sent out broad shockwaves by giving the “Yes” camp a slight majority for the first time: 51 percent to 49 percent.

Now, however, the numbers have shifted back, with “No” in the lead overall and the percentage of women supporting independence dropping to 42 percent. The uncertainty about which way they’ll cast ballots next Thursday has turned them into the ultimate swing vote.

“Both men and women have been shifting toward ‘Yes,’ but the shift has been greater amongst women,” says Mr. Kellner.

Three hundred years – and counting?

The Kingdom of Scotland and Kingdom of England, once divided by war, have been joined in political union since 1707. But it’s often been an unhappy marriage, with Scots benefiting from union in many ways but also seeing in England an overbearing partner. In recent times,  dating from Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's term, “there has been a constant political drifting apart,” says Tom Devine, a prizewinning historian in Edinburgh.

The referendum has dominated Scottish politics for the past year, pitting families against one another and engaging some high-profile advocates. Actor Sean Connery is one well-known Scot who supports independence, while Harry Pottery author J.K. Rowling said, in handing the "Better Together" campaign a $1.7 million donation, that elements of the “Yes” campaign seem “a little Death Eaterish.”

SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s bid for independence tugs on centuries-old patriotism here, but its draw in the 21st century is about the kind of society Scotland aspires to become. Despite a large degree of autonomy – Scotland has had its own parliament since 1999 and has long run its own health and education systems – many Scots denounce a “democratic deficit.” Scottish politicians make up only 9 percent of the 650-member House of Commons in London. Only one MP from Scotland is a Conservative.

“The ethos of [Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s government] seems a million miles away from the zeitgeist of Scotland,” says John MacDonald, who directs Scottish Global Forum, a think tank.

With independence, the SNP promises to point Scotland toward Scandinavia, which tops the charts on everything from gender equality to social justice. In a hefty tome called Scotland’s Future, the SNP argues that it must have control of its own budget to take such steps as putting North Sea oil wealth into a fund for future generations or dismantling Britain’s nuclear arsenal, which sits in Scotland.

The realism factor

But if the vision is appealing, the feasibility has long been in doubt. North Sea oil may not be able to fund Scotland’s spending aims indefinitely, and it's not clear if Scotland can remain in the European Union or NATO. The biggest unknown has been currency: Westminster has said Scotland cannot continue using the pound if it breaks away.

Such questions have deterred women, who, Kellner argues, are more cautious voters generally. But groups like Mums for Change have been able to turn that message about caution to their advantage. In forums across the country, especially geared for the undecided, they explain that a “Yes” vote is the cautious choice, because things will change regardless of the vote. And only an independent Scotland can promise the right priorities, such as putting “bairns,” as kids are called in Scotland, “before bombs,” referring to the nuclear arsenal, says Robertson. 

Indeed, Scottish society already looks a lot more “Scandinavian” than its English counterpart. Here, university fees are free, unlike in England. The Scots run their own health service and have no plans to privatize any part of it. They don’t pay for prescriptions. 

The SNP has promised to safeguard this way of life, but also improve on the shortcomings. SNP party campaign director Angus Robertson says that such a society would particularly appeal to women. Britons spend 27 percent of their household income on childcare, compared with the OECD average of 12 percent. In Sweden it’s 5 percent. “We’ve looked at how our northern European neighbors have been developing their economy, and supporting women and family life more effectively than is the case in the UK,” he says. “We’ve been learning from our Scandinavian neighbors.”

SNP's aspirations have been dismissed as unrealistic and dishonest by the opposition’s Better Together campaign. Scottish Labor Party member Jackie Baillie scoffs at the SNP promise of “Scandinavian welfare and US-style taxation,” she says. Scotland, she says, already has control over childcare issues, so the promise of more coverage is simply a ploy to win the female vote, she says.

A clear gender gap still exists, even if it’s narrowed. More men say they plan to vote yes, and women still characterize “No” as the cautious vote. Jo McKnight, a mother of two, says she is a clear “No,” as the sticker on her car indicates, while her husband drives around with a “Yes” on his. She says that he is patriotic and a risk-taker by nature – a former professional rugby player who later started his own company. “As a man he is more ‘go for it,’ ” she says. “For me, I say we have a good life with two young children. I don’t want to put that on a roulette table.”

For Cori Foreman, voting to stay in the union is a matter of identity. “I’m Scottish, but I’m British, too,” Ms. Foreman, a teacher, says as she walks out of a debate on social welfare at the parliament in Edinburgh on a recent day.

Her mother, Christine Baxter, who says she is leaning toward “Yes,” says that she’d like to take the chance while they have it to “get away from England and the Tories,” she says. “We are a different breed.”

Ms. Foreman looks at her in surprise. “Mother, I was born in England!”

These questions of identity have grown, in part with devolution, which has boosted Scottish nationalism as well as English nationalism. Until very recently, being British and English, or British and Welsh, or Scottish, or Northern Irish, “has been seen as the same thing,” says Robert Colls, a professor of cultural history at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. “It was possible to be both. Just like it is possible to be a proud Texan and a proud American.”

But that’s changing. “Today people recognize there really is a distinction between being English or Scottish,” he says.

At the same time, says Mr. Devine, the historian, being Scottish does not mean being oppressed. Mr. Salmond has referred to English “shackles,” but Devine says that, unlike other separatist movements, “we are not terribly aggrieved, we are rich. There is no deep sense of bitterness, we are not coerced.” There are no linguistic or religious divides. “This is an aspirational nationalism.”

And that is, in many ways, the very thing that has worked against the “Yes” campaign. Elderly voter Eithne Lynch, a Glasgow resident born in Ireland, says that unity has served Scotland well, especially Scottish women. “People are generally happy,” she says. “Their children and grandchildren are doing well.”

In other words, Scotland as part of the UK might not be Scandinavia. But it’s not so bad either.

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