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Guest blog: Women Saying No (Indyref Thursday #8)

This week's final indyref Thursday is a double page special from two former politicians who have been out on the campaign trail. They describe what they believe their vote will mean for women.

Maria Fyfe is a former Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill

I know women who are voting Yes because they want a fairer and more equal society. I completely agree with their aim, but where is the capacity to achieve it? It doesn’t happen just because enough people put a cross against Yes on a ballot paper. We can all be emotionally aroused by stirring speeches. But one of the wisest pieces of advice I ever heard was, “Never mind what politicians say. Look at how they spend the public’s money and then you know what they really care about.” I could add to that, what they tax and who gets tax cuts.

True, there are people of a left wing bent in the Yes campaign, and even some feminists. But there is little sign that their views are being heeded by the SNP, by far the largest political party. If a Yes vote wins, it will be Alex Salmond as First Minister who will lead the negotiations with the rest of the UK, Nato and the EU. It is likely the SNP would continue to be the governing party for quite a while, because the history of new states being formed usually is that the party most identified with independence is the winner when it comes to elections.

So let’s look at the record. They plan a cut in corporation tax of 3p in the £, which benefits the already wealthy and does nothing to bring jobs. When industrialists pay less tax, there is less money to spend on social welfare. Unless other taxes go up, but John Swinney has promised they won’t. I believe taxes should be paid in proportion to income. As the old socialist saying has it, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

The nationalists are fond of claiming that Westminster has never been any use. Off the top of my head, with no research, I can think of many reforms which they seem to have forgotten about.

Votes for women, and working class men, achieved less than a century ago.

The Married Women’s Property Act, ending centuries of women being exploited financially by their husbands.

Equal rights for women to education up to the highest levels.

Barring married women from jobs such as teaching made unlawful.

Family Allowances (later termed Child Benefit) paid to the mother, hugely increased by Gordon Brown, widows’ pensions, single parent benefits, tax credits.

The Welfare State and the NHS – the latter founded by a Welshman, in a government led by an Englishman, to the benefit of all throughout the UK.

Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts. No more sacking a woman on grounds of pregnancy.

No more refusing credit to a woman unless she could demonstrate her husband’s agreement.

The 1967 Abortion Law. Younger women may not realise what a step forward this was. Before then, the only recourse was do-it-yourself or a back street abortionist, often ending up in a hospital ward where the nurses struggled to save her capacity to bear children later, but often to save her life.

The National Minimum Wage. When Labour MPs went through the night voting this into law, the Nationalists went home to their beds.

The creation of the Scottish Parliament, which from its start in 1999 had women MSPs in numbers comparable to the Scandinavian countries. Only Labour delivered equal numbers of men and women. The SNP played no part in the 50:50 campaign, and while they had a respectable 43% women elected that year, by this year it had fallen to 26%. They talk of making company boards have a minimum of 40% women, but there is no such commitment where elections to our parliament are concerned. Why not?

The only commitment on Equal Pay in the White Paper is to say it “could” be included in the Constitution. Yet we have all heard of countries where the constitution says many fine things, but in practice they don’t happen. Why not set down proposals for legislation? Both Labour and the Greens have, to take one example, advocated a requirement that employers publish their pay scales, so that secrecy does not hide inequality, and underpaid staff can all the better pursue their claim.

The UK, some would have you believe, is all about Rule Britannia and the Empire. The UK I want to preserve and build on is the history of achievement going back centuries to the benefit of the many, and struggle in defence of these gains. From the peasants’ revolt onwards, struggle by trade unions, political parties, individual campaigners, MPs who promoted worthy causes, petitions and many a single issue campaign. In particular I take pride in Mary Barbour, a working class woman who led Glasgow tenants to victory against the private landlords and secured a change in the law that benefited tenants throughout the UK, not in Scotland alone.

So, it seems to me, it’s a no-brainer. Who have put up the best fight for women, and who have made promises but so far little action? Who have gained the experience to tackle all that remains to be done? And I don’t just mean Labour politicians. Creating a new state in itself does nothing to resolve our problems of child poverty, unemployment and unfair distribution of wealth. Far less issues like violence against women and sexism pervading society. These matters are not dealt with merely by putting a cross in the box marked “Yes” – or “No”. Life is a bit harder than that. We need to face up to such realities, and not daydream about jam tomorrow. If we want to create a better society for all, then we need to stand up, not stand aside.


Maria Fyfe was a Glasgow councillor, convener of Personnel Committee, depute city treasurer, before being elected Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill 1987 – 2001. She was appointed deputy shadow minister for women, later Scottish front bench spokesperson on Health and Education. Chaired Scottish Group of Labour MPs. Chaired Scottish Constitutional Convention working party on equal representation of women in planned Scottish Parliament, long involvement in women’s rights campaigns.

As mature student, gained Upper Second in Economic History, then teaching qualification. Lectured in Further Education in Falkirk, then senior lecturer on TUC courses for union reps at Central College, Glasgow.

Born in The Gorbals, grew up in Pollok, Glasgow. Married Jim Fyfe (deceased), industrial relations journalist. Two sons, four grandchildren¸ two step-grandchildren.

Awarded Hon Doctorate by Glasgow University for parliamentary work on behalf of women.

Interests: Labour politics , cookery, writing. Author of memoir “A Problem Like Maria” (an account of her 14 years in Westminster) and editor of collection of essays “Women Saying No” aimed at countering the lack of women’s voices and concerns being heard in the referendum debate

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