Lindsey German reviews 'Scottish Independence: A Feminist Response' by Cat Boyd and Jenny Morrison
Cat Boyd and Jenny Morrison, Scottish Independence A feminist response, (Word Power Books 2014),85pp.
The campaign for a yes vote has reached a crucial and, even for us observing it from hundreds of miles away, exciting stage. The gap between the yes and no positions has narrowed according to most recent polls, and in the latest poll show a narrow lead for yes. This in itself has struck fear into the hearts of unionists and establishment figures, as the prospect of working people (and the yes vote is overwhelmingly working people) taking their destiny into their own hands looms on the near horizon. Perhaps even more importantly, the campaign has unleashed a wave of political debate and discussion in Scotland which even the most curmudgeonly commentators admit is a highly positive break from the apathy and consensus politics which so dominates what passes for for political discourse in Britain.
There has been a summer of debate and political engagement so foreign to what passes for politics in Britain that in itself it is repeatedly remarked upon. The discussion about what sort of Scotland is possible has raised all sorts of questions about privatisation, welfare, militarism and the economy. It has also opened up the wider social questions of race, class and women's oppression.
This short book concentrates on the latter and looks at what feminists and socialists should be demanding and campaigning for both in the existing campaign and in an independent Scotland. Both authors come from a perspective of involvement in the Radical Independence Campaign. The argument that something must change for women in such a scenario is a key theme of the book.
It traces the history of women in Scotland, including the Red Clydeside women who organised rent strikes during the First World War, to the Lee Jeans women who occupied their Greenock factory over closure in the early Thatcher years.
It also links some of the worst aspects of women's position today with the wider culture prevalent in Britain, for example militarism and lad culture. The cause of independence, they argue, would also serve to help campaign against some of the worst excesses of the British state. Neoliberalism and privatisation has hit women particularly hard. The authors quote figures which show that societies with more public spending and welfare provision are also likely to be more gender equal.
There are many good arguments in the book, for example highlighting the hypocrisy of those who talk about defence and security in Scotland today, and pointing out that domestic violence and other forms of sexual violence are much bigger threats to women's safety. They attack the idea that wars liberate women or can be responsible for humanitarian intervention. I think however here they underplay the wing of feminism which has strongly endorsed such intervention, and which is current among many female politicians and other bourgeois feminists. The truth is that feminists have been split on these issues.
Feminists also split on class and political lines on a range of questions that are covered in the book. One of the features of neoliberalism has been the way in which a degree of feminist ideas have been incorporated into the mainstream. This is true at a practical and ideological level. In my opinion this cannot be explained by patriarchy, as the authors tend to do. The development of patriarchy theory always lacked a clear class and historical dimension; in the present era of globalisation it really does lack an understanding of how class society works. They quote Beatrix Campbell as discussing neoliberal neopatriarchy but what does this mean? Neoliberal attacks are on women, for sure, but they are overwhelmingly class attacks, savaging whole communities. There is too much separating off feminism from these class attacks in this book.
That said, the book raises a number of fascinating points and questions. It makes a sharp critique of Scottish governments under devolution since the establishment of the Scottish parliament, which pays lip service to gender equality in terms of increased women's political representation but ignores the vast economic inequalities and the divisions of class.
It also rightly demonstrates the limitations of the 'Nordic model' of women's equality which achieves relatively high levels of formal equality but still suffers high levels of structural and institutional sexism, not to mention racism.
The authors put forward a number of demands which they see as central to advancing the position of women in a Scottish state. These include paying a living wage by law, outlawing precarious employment, taxing the rich, a community gender budget to fund bodies which will help women such as refuges, land reform, taking into account women's domestic labour as part of the economy, and the socialisation of care.
All these are important reforms in their own right, but also point to what sort of independent Scotland do we want?
It is appropriate therefore that the final section deals with the limitations of capitalism. The deeply rooted nature of women's oppression within class society means that any serious strategy for women's liberation will involve a fundamental transformation of society. Put simply, the priorities of capital of private profit and exploitation will never allow the use of society's resources to change the conditions of women, and by extension children and men. Such a transformation cannot of course take place in one country, but has to be carried out on an international scale.
Scotland's campaign for a referendum is of course a long way from such revolutionary change. But it has opened up a political discussion which already goes far beyond the narrow yes\no question. Whatever the outcome on September 18th, it is the job of socialists and feminists to maintain and extend their campaigning to try to achieve much more than Westminster rule, or indeed an SNP administered capitalist Scotland, would allow. This book is a contribution to that discussion which importantly raises the central question of women's equality, and ensures it has to be on the agenda of all those who want that change.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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