This short blog post is based on my presentation to the Socio-legal Perspectives on Brexit stream at the SLSA’s 2018 conference in Bristol. The question of whether Brexit provides an opportunity or a threat to gender equality in Scotland is complex and my presentation did not seek to answer it definitively but to consider the wider implications for both.
As Brexit plays out in the corridors of power in Westminster and Brussels, it may be easy to forget that 62% of the Scottish electorate, and every local authority in Scotland, voted to ‘remain’ in the EU. The fact that the narrow ‘leave’ vote would now force Scotland’s withdrawal from the EU was made all the more contentious because continued EU membership had been a decisive factor for many of those voting against Scottish Independence in the 2014 Referendum which resulted in a narrow 55% result to stay within the UK.
As well as fuelling claims of Scotland’s democratic deficit, the different political choices north and south of the border, up to and including Brexit, can be interpreted as indicative of a distinctive Scottish psyche, more internationalist in its outlook than the ‘little England’ mentality of its near neighbour. With echoes of the 18thCentury Scottish Enlightenment in which Scotland distinguished itself within Europe as an ‘intellectual powerhouse’, the idea of Scotland as a champion for social justice on the world stage, or at the very least (according to Alex Salmond) as ‘a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border’, aligns with Burns’s call for international brotherhood in ‘A Man’s A Man for a’ That’. But what of Scotland’s women? Do their lived experiences resonate with this particular vision of self-identity or is as alien to modern Scotland as the heather and tartan Brigadoon stereotype?
It is undeniable that the re-convened Scottish Parliament of 1999 was designed with gender equality in mind: its standing orders were drafted in gender-neutral language and incorporate family friendly working hours. A mandatory Equal Opportunities Committee (now the Equalities and Human Rights Committee) was established long before the appearance of Westminster’s Women and Equalities Committee in 2015. Furthermore, equal opportunities was adopted as one of the Parliament’s four key principles, the others being the sharing of power, accountability and access and participation. The expanded committee structure and open style of governance facilitates participation by citizens and civil society in law and policy-making which has recently resulted in ground-breaking legislation aimed at tackling domestic abuse. Such advances in gender equality have been spearheaded by Scotland’s vibrant feminist movement. However, as the work of Scotland’s most prominent feminist organisations shows, such progress is dwarfed by the continuing inequality endured by women in Scottish society and a pay gap of 32.2% when comparing men’s full-time average hourly earnings with women’s part-time average hourly earnings.
Ambition can only be matched by what is practically possible. In the context of gender equality, the Scotland Act 1998 gave little competence to Scotland’s legislature to enact significant change. It is noteworthy that whenever further devolution of power has been mooted in Scotland, equality has been high on the agenda. This was certainly the case in the aftermath of the Independence Referendum which resulted in further devolved powers. The Brexit referendum has, once again put equality under the spotlight with the dominant political rhetoric being for Scotland to distinguish itself in the areas of equality and human rights and forge its position as a global leader. This is not an easy task under the current devolution settlement by which equality, with limited exceptions, remains a reserved area giving Westminster almost exclusive legislative competence so that the question of Scottish distinctiveness in this area remains untested.
In Sylvia Walby’s typology (Walby 2004; 2015) national gender regimes can be placed on a continuum from neoliberal to social democratic depending on the ‘gendered depth of democracy and the degree of gender inequality’. Most countries contain mixed elements of both regimes with the neoliberal route dependent on the marketization of services and their provision by the private sector, and the social democratic route on the effective mobilization of political forces including civil society to access state power in political systems. Walby (2015) has posited that the UK Government’s austerity policies have halted the ‘slow move towards a social democratic public gender regime and [brought about] its replacement by a sudden turn to a neoliberal public gender regime’ – a trend which looks likely to be exacerbated as the UK withdraws from the EU’s legal order, heralded by equality experts for its ‘powerful role in protecting equality rights against erosion and in pushing forward expansion’. It is interesting to speculate whether, with greater legislative powers, Scotland would reverse this trend. This could amount to more than academic musing. The current impasse between the UK and Scottish Governments over Brexit could be resolved in any number of ways with two very real possibilities being greater devolved powers for Scotland or a further Independence Referendum. The time may have come for Scotland to be tested on its claims to greater social justice through the delivery of a more gender equal Scottish society.
Walby, S. (2004) ‘The European Union and Gender Equality: Emergent Varieties of Gender Regime’, Social Politics, 11, 1, 4–29.
Walby, S. (2015) Crisis.Cambridge: Polity Press.
A longer version of this paper will be published as Brexit, Gender Equality and Scotland: In and out of the Shadowlands in Dustin, M., Ferreira, N., and Milns, S. (eds.) Feminist and Queer Perspectives on Brexit, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (forthcoming 2018)