Putting gender equality and care policy into the independence referendum debate

I have spoken about gender equality, care policy and its relevance to the referendum on Scottish independence in a series of recent events aimed at non-academic audiences: a lecture for international women’s day, a debate for the 5 Million Questions series at the University of Dundee and an appearance on Newsnight Scotland. In all of them I have made the points that are emerging from the early stages of our ‘Fairer, Caring Nations’ project:

  • That small, wealthy nations with developed welfare states are more likely to have good gender equality outcomes if those values are embedded in their constitution;
  • That gender equality is more likely to be achieved if the social right to universal child and social care services is a key part of a country’s approach to welfare;
  • That a written constitution embedding these values, and the mechanisms for achieving them, would be helpful.

These emerging conclusions do not, of course, mean that Scotland needs to be independent to achieve gender equality or fair childcare and social care policies. But it does indicate that independence would give its people the opportunity to reframe its constitution, and decide whether or not it wants to be a fairer, more equal nation.

Much is made of the ‘Nordic model’, with scepticism about how transferable that model could be to Scotland, and how affordable or desirable it might be. But our research indicates that there are other models that Scotland could learn from, including the ‘dual-earner/dual-carer’ approach used in the Netherlands, or the way in which long term care insurance is devolved in Germany.

Caution would be needed: even if Scotland decided to vote for independence, there are no guarantees that gender equality or care policy would form an important part of its new constitutional framework. Or, indeed, that civil society and interest groups with experience in this area would even be substantively involved in the process.

So independence might create an opportunity to create a fairer, more caring, more equal society, it may even be a necessary component to that, but it certainly wouldn’t be sufficient.

What has emerged from my various encounters with the wider public is that some sectors of Scottish society are very interested in issues of fairness, and equality, and care policy including: carers and care providers, disabled people, older people and working parents. But what they feel is missing from the referendum debate is any serious, substantive consideration of these issues. Indeed, many people have told me that it is the first time they have heard these issues discussed in the context of the referendum.

There is also a strong feeling that both the ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ campaigns are more concerned with political points scoring than giving the people of Scotland real evidence and debating the issues properly.

I think academics like myself need to do more in this crucial period in the run-up to the referendum to inform the public as much as we can in an independent and critically rigorous way about the evidence. Of course, the problem is, as it always is for academics, that the issues are complex, the evidence is also complex, and there are no easy answers.

But it is worth remembering that the referendum on Scottish independence is not about policy. On the 18th September, voters have to decide one thing only: who should govern, and make policy for, Scotland, Scotland? Or Scotland as part of the rest of the UK? Who should make and implement policies that matter to you, and are right for you, for your families, for your communities, for Scotland? It isn’t the policies that matter so much as who makes and implements them.

However, trans-national law-making bodies (such as the EU) will always be important in setting the agenda around gender equality. The swing towards rightwing, isolationist parties such as UKIP in the recent European elections (where Scotland voted for 1 UKIP seat out of 5) hints at voter disillusionment with the EU. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that a significant minority of the electorate in Scotland voted for a party that is explicitly opposed to policies designed to promote gender equality (for example maternity rights and European parental leave directives). But it does raise questions of how seriously Scottish voters are concerned with gender equality, care policy and fairness.

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Kirstein Rummery's picture
University of Stirling
28th May 2014
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