A few months ago, Zero Tolerance’s new initiative, Just like a child, was discussed on Radio Scotland’s call-in discussion show Call Kaye. Part of Zero Tolerance’s preventative work around domestic abuse, the initiative aims to discourage gender stereotyping by parents and in nurseries, in order to promote equality and thereby reduce rates of violence against women. It’s incredibly important work that past feminists would have only dreamed of.
It is part of a wider movement amongst feminist organisations in Scotland to concertedly build preventative work into their overall strategy. Rape Crisis centres throughout Scotland are drawing together the funding to hire prevention workers, and Rape Crisis Scotland has run several high-profile advertising campaigns, most notably the television advertisements, Not Ever, challenging attitudes around rape. But the early-years work of Zero Tolerance tackles gender head-on, in an inevitably controversial way.
The radio show Call Kaye brings out the best and worst of Scottish public engagement where callers’ comments can often be extreme, nasty, and conservative. Listening to the radio conversations, it was clear that Zero Tolerance as a public organisation has an ideology somewhat at odds with the ideology of the public. Most see the psychological and social development of boys and girls up to the age of five as biologically different, revealing that they also consider the nature of men and women as different. When Zero Tolerance says that we teach men to be strong and women to be weak, it often falls on deaf ears. Public education is nowhere near as advanced as feminist organisations would like it to be, and though each initiative will create better-educated generations, the fact still remains that there is a disjoint between the organisations and the public.
That the initiatives are going forward at all is therefore testimony to the type of power held by feminists in Scotland. It’s not a lot of power, by any standards, but in comparison to other countries many are pleased with the relationship between women’s organisations and the Scottish Government. This can be diagnosed as a by-product of devolution, whereby the Scottish Government in some ways has a closer relationship with civil society organisations in the devolved sphere than with the public in Scotland. The Scottish government has sovereignty only over particular public realms, the realms of civil and social institutions, not over the public itself. Thus, a disjoint has developed between public democracy and the running of the devolved parts of state, so that in the most extreme cases the public are seen to be represented in the governance of Scotland through civil society organisations, as service users, rather than through the state, as citizens.
The steps forward being taken by women’s organisations in Scotland capitalising on this disjoint, reveal why devolution is a favoured constitutional form for many people in civil society organisations and charities. The prospects for radical feminist initiatives under independence, where the government must appear more directly publicly accountable, are slimmer. In short, the divide between public and institutions works very well for some feminist organisations, who can try to make radical change without being held publicly accountable by the misogynist parts of society, and enlisting the support of many public sector workers, such as the nursery workers in this particular initiative, who ﬁnd the proposals exciting.
The other major preventative rather than reactive feminist movement in Scotland recently has been towards major economic change, as presented by Ailsa Mackay in an article on openDemocracy. Here the key measure is to challenge the pay, beneﬁts and work of women, to resolve the high levels of poverty and the income gap through new models of economic thought and practice. Challenging the place of women in terms of work and income can of course only go so far in a devolved Scotland. Real change would require greater ﬁscal powers.
Both social change, such as the Zero Tolerance initiative, and economic change, such as the feminist economic models being discussed at the moment, are interrelated and important. But the constitutional arrangement and potential in Scotland mean these two objectives contradict each other. Many who wish to radically change society in Scotland, not just feminists, are unsure whether to persist with feminist demands under devolution while they have a strong voice, or sacriﬁce some inﬂuence to a public unshaped by the experience of social and public responsibility, in order to attempt even bigger successes through economic and democratic change.
The question boils down to whether it is better to implement feminist change through a less democratic quasi-state, or whether change should come from a public will and a public consciousness. An argument for the former runs as follows: our democratic system does not include women as much as it should, women are still not full citizens of either Scotland or Britain, as evidenced by the poor record of the Scottish Parliament and local government on women’s representation. Why should we tease out of a democratic system, designed for men, the seeds of women’s liberation? We have found in Scotland a system that seems to work better for women that the system in Westminster, where gender equality institutions of parliament are being dismantled without a second thought, by a cabinet with only 3/22 women.
But there is good reason to be wary of the nature of the Scottish Parliament as it now stands. The point of the democratic citizen is that they act and speak, not that they are spoken for, or accounted for in a calculation by a civil servant. This is especially important for women, who should look to move on from representation by individuals and organisations to political representation by parties and committees in government. The Scottish Women’s Convention, for instance, is a body which has not been particularly successful under a devolved administration, but with full state powers in Scotland, this body could be a direct political voice for women speaking as empowered individuals. In the light of the independence referendum, there is much empty talk of democracy which ignores that our democratic system in Scotland is ﬂailing, and failing to deliver a platform for citizens, especially women.
There is also a widening gap between the actions of the Scottish parliament and the will of the public in Scotland, evidenced in unpopular laws such as anti-sectarian law, or laborious long-winded processes such as that around same-sex marriage. A parliament can drag its people along with it only so far, until there is a democratic deﬁcit, and the institutions of religion and privilege step into the political sphere, in place of the democratic channels. While the Scottish government cannot easily harness a public political spirit in its current form, apart from at the rare points where it harnesses an impotent nationalism, we in Scotland should look to where this relationship might emerge.
Given that an independent Scottish state would result in the development of a more directly critical and vocal public, feminists in Scotland may need to move away from policy and political strategies to think about how to inﬂuence public perception and public support. This happens already in terms of social attitudes, but not speciﬁcally in a political sphere. A public political voice would be a good thing for the movement. If, for instance, the new laws on sexual violence had been subject to greater public and popular scrutiny, the journey to achieve them may have been harder, but we would have come out of this process with a public with a greater understanding of violence against women, consent, and the need for a feminist movement.