Mind the Gap: Gender and the Debate over Scotland’s Future

Recent polling shows a big gender gap in Scottish attitudes to independence, with women far more pro-union. How should this be understood in the wider context of Scottish politics and what does it tell us about the motivations of the Yes and No camps?

Gerry Hassan
29 March 2013

The debate over Scottish independence, its constitutional status and wider future, is an important one, both north of the border and across the isles of the UK.  It is also one which elicits as much sound and fury as it does reflection, as well as a significant amount of adversarial, tribal, binary posturing and point-scoring.

In the last week a Panelbase poll found on the question to be used in next year’s referendum, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, 36% supporting independence and 46% opposing (1); however, underneath this it found that among men, 47% were for independence and 40% against, and among women, 25% were for independence and 52% against. That’s a 7% men lead for independence and 27% women lead for the union; a whopping 34% gap between the sexes (and while only 13% of men were don’t knows, 23% of women were).

There are numerous questions which flow from these findings. First, who are pro-independence Scotland, which groups and places do they come from? Generally they are younger, in poorer socio-economic groups, and with significant footholds outside of the Central Belt; and obviously in each, more male (in the most recent poll all men under 55 years old showed 51% support for independence). Second, who is pro-union Scotland? They tend to be older, with the over-55s and over-65s pronouncedly pro-union, more affluent, and more female. In short, the first increasingly looks like (gender apart) excluded Scotland, and the second, entitled and entitlement Scotland; this maps onto trends found in the 1997 referendum but accentuated.

There is thus a historic basis for these divisions and this can be seen on gender. In the 1979 referendum, Scots voted 52:48 for an Assembly with MORI finding men 8% more pro-devolution than women, and System Three found men 5% more pro-devolution (2). In the 1997 devolution referendum, men were pro-devolution by margins of 58% and women by 51%: a gender gap of 7%; whereas on the second tax raising question, men were in favour of the powers by 40% and women by 23%: a gap of 17% (3).

We should acknowledge that we have too little polling in Scotland, despite forty years of constitutional debate, and a near total absence of qualitative analysis (something the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey contributes to, by only ever commissioning opinion poll surveys, in over a decade); this is even more so on issues of gender politics in Scotland, where we have very little hard data to start digging deeper.

Yet, the above points to one tentative observation which can be seen in the gap on the tax raising powers in the 1997 referendum: that more women than men are influenced by practical and personal financial factors. And we have some evidence that this is more so with the independence question; namely the now infamous poll which showed Scots opinion was fluid enough to swing one way or the other over the princely sum of £500 per year better or worse off. Women went from 13% support for independence if worse off, to 63% support if they thought were better off (the male equivalent figures are 29% and 67%) (4).

Thus women even more than men have as well as a conservatism, also a fluid, flexible attitude which clearly isn’t consistently pro-independence, but nor is it firmly and passionately pro-union. Neither ‘Braveheart’ nationalist, nor ‘Union Jack’ patriot. However, the cautiousness of many women is underlined by the fact that apart from gender, the forces of pro-union opinion are those who gain most from the existing state of Scotland: the middle class, professional groups, and those with most income, education and status.

This has to be put in a sense of history, where Scotland and Scottish politics have come from, and where we are. Scotland has in the past been a phenomenally masculinised society, shaped at points by the power, collective identities and poverty which went with unrestrained capitalism and its heavy industries. Scotland between 1918 and 1997 only elected 23 women MPs, managing not that long ago, in the 1983 election, to elect a solitary female MP, Dame Judith Hart, for Labour.

This was for some all meant to change with the arrival of the Scottish Parliament and the rhetoric and expectations of ‘the new politics’. There was pre-devolution work by groups such as Engender and ‘A Woman’s Claim of Right’ which challenged the male entitlement culture of much of Scottish politics, raised the profile of feminism, and made an issue of women’s representation.

There were results: the first Scottish Parliament had 48 MSPs out of 129, which was seen as a ‘genderquake’ at the time, and while there has been retreat and retrenchment, Holyrood has spoken many times with a much more feminised voice than Westminster (not exactly hard), and large parts of institutional Scotland. But, it hasn’t created a completely new form of politics, in the process, showing the power of old styles of politics and the lack of substantive thinking in much of the ‘new politics’.

The story of the Scottish Parliament has overall been a success - certainly as an idea, institution, even ideology, but as a politics and group of politicians, it has arrived in the age of scepticism and anti-politics. It has consistently, whether under the control of Labour and the Lib Dems, or SNP, been the voice of entitled Scotland, of a safety first, incremental, don’t frighten those in power, politics.

I would argue that the pro-devolution forces of the 1980s and 1990s, including women’s and feminist groups, bought into this version of the world. It argued that the politics of representation and politics of presence were adequate to give voice to the voiceless and to heal the broken state of Scottish democracy. It was thought that proportional representation, and action on gender and ethnic minorities, would aid a renewal of political life. Instead, what we got was a more pluralist politics in representation and presence on the above, but a narrower, truncated politics in terms of class, background, and critically, ideas.

The strange state of the independence debate in places, the dysfunctional Labour-SNP cultural and political war, and the prevalence of institutional and systemic conservatism across Scotland’s public life and politics, has contributed to all of this. It isn’t surprising that our debates on equality, gender, feminism, and representation, have been shaped by such an environment.

It is still acceptable in parts of Scotland to articulate misogynist, sexist and anti-women opinions. Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow South West, for example, boasted that he was going to give SNP MP Eilidh Whiteford a ‘doing’; his defence was that his remarks had been deliberately misrepresented, which wasn’t much of a defence at all. Women in public life including some of the most prominent figures reflect that they feel everything is up for legitimate comment in the way it isn’t with men.

It is not hard to fathom in this world that more women voters are cautious, conservative and a bit sceptical of big transformative change. When did that last work in Scotland? The ‘myth’ of ‘Red Clydeside’ or maybe the Reformation; seriously we don’t, if we include gender, have many examples to go on.

Scotland is not a fully-fledged democracy; never has been, still isn’t and has a long way to go to become one. But then the United Kingdom – a la Tom Nairn, Will Hutton and Patrick Wright’s ‘On Living in an Old Country’ - is not a democracy and shows no signs of wanting to be a modern country.

Scotland shows some signs of wanting to be a modern country, of living as a progressive, civilised place, humble, human and generous. But across large parts of the independence debate, that is more intent and potential than reality. The independence referendum is about more than a Yes/No vote, but about who we are as a society, and whether we can begin to learn the practices, intelligences and cultures of being a democracy. Part of this is the gender divide and challenging unacceptable attitudes, part talking about the social apartheid which marginalises excluded Scotland, and part the self-preservation instincts of status quo Scotland, which have been so successful at positioning and maintaining themselves.

This isn’t meant as a gloomy prognosis, merely to illustrate that there is a legacy and tradition of diminishing and depowering people across centuries, then the more recent versions under Thatcherism and after, and that beginning to recognise the voices missing and the absence of radical challenges, is a start and a sort of progress.

Scotland is slowly working out, in a messy, fuzzy, contradictory way, how it has a conversation about its future, and what that amounts to. This is connected to but an even bigger question than the independence referendum. That’s why some of us are actually, for all of the above, quite excited about living in a northern country for the next few years.



1. STV News, ‘Yes campaign gains ground in latest independence referendum poll’, March 24th 2013,

2. John Bochel, David Denver and Allan MacCartney (eds), The Referendum Experience Scotland 1979, Aberdeen University Press 1981, p. 142.

3. David Denver, James Mitchell, Charles Pattie and Hugh Bochel, Scotland Decides: The 1997 Devolution Issue and the Referendum Experience, Frank Cass 2000, p. 155.

4. John Curtice, ‘Closing the Gap’, Holyrood, November 5th 2012,

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