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The Working Life of Christina McKelvie MSP
4th February 2010

Women and Politics

Bless the creation of Sky+ - that’s what I think.  I never get to see much TV and when I do want to see something I’m generally too busy or too tired at the time it’s normally aired so the record function on Sky+ lets me record the things I really want to see and I can watch them when I have a spare few minutes.  Last week, then, after a long Monday followed by an evening meeting, I got home, got my shoes off, brewed up a cuppa and sat down in front of the telly to watch Mo – the story of Mo Mowlam.

Although her politics and mine are slightly different, I always had a lot of respect for her and for the work she did in Northern Ireland.  Julie Walters delivered a very realistic depiction of Mo and demonstrated the strength of character and the famous (or perhaps infamous) negotiating tactics she deployed to bring about peace in Northern Ireland.  I don’t compliment the Conservatives very often, but I believe that John Major and his Government deserve an awful lot of credit for the work they did in seeking to address the issues and bring about peace.  It was their efforts that meant that the scene was set for Mo Mowlam barrelling into office in 1997 and shaking up politics in the six counties.  That combination was the bedrock of the peace deal and the rejuvenation of Stormont.

Perhaps that strength of character, the determination, the principles and the battling will of Mo Mowlam would have acted as a brake on the rush to war in Iraq and Afghanistan had she still been in cabinet when those momentous decisions were taken.  Would the voice of Mowlam have acted as the conscience of the collective?  Robin Cook, we know, ended his political career on the rocks of principle in opposition to the Iraq war and it may seem a bit daft for me to think that Mo Mowlam could have made the difference but I have the feeling (as always, I suppose) that the bow-wake of a powerful woman often carries more before it than you would expect and that Mo’s influence within the cabinet might have been enough to turn away from war.  We’ll never know, of course, but we’re all free to speculate.

Having sorted out Monday so well, I wasn’t giving up on Tuesday.  Back home late after meetings and I could sit down to watch Mrs Mandela.  I was fascinated by the influences, the pressures that created the driven woman that Winnie Mandela became.  The obscene treatment by the then South African authorities of those who opposed them politically, the sheer brutality and inhumanity of that treatment was shameful.  Winnie Madikizela Mandela was subjected to that, including the obscene use of sexual violence.  When her husband was sentenced to life imprisonment at Rivonia trial Winnie vowed to carry on the struggle and she suffered as a result.  Tortured by Swanepoel, tested by the Soweto riots and banished to a distant township, she stood up against her oppressors and refused to buckle, moving herself back to Soweto and calling for revolution – most infamously in Musieville with the proclamation that “With our necklaces we shall liberate this country”.  Her soaring examples of leadership and drive for justice were blackened by the controversy over the goings-on and rumours at the Mandela United Football Club.  They were extraordinary times and it is probable that this extraordinary woman did some extraordinary things – and it’s not beyond belief that she may have broken some laws other than the apartheid laws.

Nelson Mandela from prison cell to president talked of forgiveness and he was the best beloved of the anti-apartheid movement.  Winnie Mandela, a single mother as a result of Nelson’s imprisonment and a woman targeted for special treatment by an oppressive regime, talked of burning car tyres around the necks of traitors and freeing her people.  Her passion ignited the movement and her presence energised it time after time.  Winnie Mandela was Malcolm X to Nelson Mandela’s Martin Luther King.

So what, you might ask, has all this to do with Scottish politics?  Well, women in politics have a strength of character and a determination to change the world for the better.  Sometimes that goes a bit awry as in the Mandela United episode, but it is usually enormously positive.  Today in the Scottish Parliament, women from all sides of the chamber turned out dressed in red.  Ignoring the obvious comments about Butlins, we cam together in common cause to keep the crisis that remains in Haiti at the front of people’s minds, to make sure that it doesn’t slip away down and out before we’ve done what we can to help that country back on its feet.

It happened today in the Scottish Parliament that women from all sides came together in common cause, and it happens fairly often – on asylum issues, on many immigration issues, trafficking, international development, and so on.  We take our responsibility to speak for Scotland very seriously indeed and the caring and compassionate nature of our nation shines through in these collective actions.  We don’t agree with each other on everything, but where we find common cause we’re a force to be reckoned with.

Enough of this cooperation!  Education Committee this week started its enquiry into local government spending on education.  We had the Government’s officials in for a little light grilling and they managed to return fire with masses of detail – apparently all easily recovered from memory – and seemed very much in command of their subject matter (in this case, how we finance local government).  It’s interesting that, even three years into the new way of working, some opposition politicians still can’t accept that we now have a trusting relationship with councils – we don’t tell them what to do and they don’t need to seek our agreement, the world has moved on.  Like any relationship there are tensions, but the Scottish Government will not seek to micro-manage councils the way that the previous Ministers did.  Not only is there no need, it’s counter-productive.

Wednesday afternoon was in the chamber for the third budget of the SNP Scottish Government.  Remember in our first year in power some people were saying that we’d be out by Christmas?  Well, even after the massive cuts from the London Treasury and the by now traditional teenage temper tantrum from Labour MSPs, there was John Swinney in total command in the chamber, a tour-de-force, tasking unpopular decisions, weighing how best to spend the limited resources we have for the benefit of the country.  In the end Labour MSPs voted against the budget, Lib Dems abstained, the Conservatives and the Greens backed the SNP – and we’ve got another budget done, another year started, another ratchet forward in making Scotland better.  As George Foulkes once said – we’re doing it on purpose!

Thursday gave us more chamber time – stage 3 of the Marine Bill had 123 amendments to consider and a fair number of the votes were fairly tight.  We had twitchy whips on all sides making sure that we were all in the chamber and ready to vote on each batch of amendments.  Stage 3 of a Bill is always a ‘stay in or near the chamber all day’ type thing.  On normal business days we can sit in our offices working and keep up with the debates on the internal television service.  On stage 3 days, however, there are votes going on fairly regularly and you have to be able to get back into the chamber, get your pass into the voting terminal and cast your vote, so there’s no chance of getting through constituents’ emails, catching up on research, writing letters, or any of the many other things that we normally get up to on plenary days.

I have to dash off now, I’m ‘swanning off’, as my delightful and dedicated staff term it, to the Scotswoman of the Year awards in Glasgow.  Another chance to celebrate powerful women in politics, in housing, in voluntary work, in policing, and so on, so it’s gladrags on time – the sacrifices I make, and what a country we have full of fantastic women!

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