How Holyrood failed Scottish women

OPINION: The cervical screening scandal is just another example of women being let down.

Image by Ernesto Eslava from Pixabay

The sharp intake of breath, the abruptly skipped heartbeat, the sudden thump in the pit of the stomach — the moment must have been sickening.

Last week, hundreds of women across Scotland received a letter telling them they were wrongly taken off the recall list for cervical smear testing. 

In all, 430 women who underwent partial hysterectomies after 1997 were not invited for screening, either because their surgery had been misrecorded as a full removal procedure or because of other clinical or records errors. So far one woman is known to have lost her life as a result of the scandal, though health authorities are in the process of accessing pre-1997 records to assess them for the same mistake. 

That so many women were failed on something so intimate, something with potentially profound consequences, is appalling enough. Yet we are only finding out about it now because, despite being informed on March 9, the Scottish Government withheld the information from the Scottish parliament and the public for 107 days. Only last Thursday afternoon, hours before Holyrood went into recess for the summer, did ministers reveal the truth. 

It is difficult not to recall the mesh implants debacle, another example of women being harmed rather than healed by the health service and then let down by government. Difficult because, also on Thursday, we learned that the Scottish government would finally be bringing in doctors from outside the NHS to remove transvaginal mesh implants that left women with painful, life-altering complications. 

Campaigners have been demanding this for years, since the patients affected had lost confidence in the health service and wanted outside experts to perform their removal surgery. Some who could afford to paid to have the procedure done privately, and ministers confirmed they would now be reimbursed. Again, it is hard to imagine the suffering these women have been put through. 

We know the health service can make mistakes, sometimes truly awful mistakes, because all large bureaucracies do. But how could the Scottish government fail these two groups of women by being so slow to come clean on mistakes and even slower to remedy them? 

Why did it take until the last day of parliament, when no further scrutiny of ministers’ decisions was possible, for the truth about the cervical screening scandal to become known? Why, when the use of mesh implants was suspended in 2014 and banned in 2018, when women had lobbied and petitioned and begged for years, did it take until now for ministers to accede to straightforward and understandable requests? 

Why is a parliament that is supposedly so progressive so poor at serving the women of Scotland?

Shortly before the election, the outgoing Labour MSP Johann Lamont told Holyrood magazine that the Scottish parliament had not improved the lives of women. From a feminist, this was an arresting pronouncement; from a long-time devolutionist, it was damning. However, it was no overstatement. While Holyrood has some legislative accomplishments in the area of domestic abuse, its overall record on women is lamentable. 

The same election which saw Lamont step down also saw the departure of Jenny Marra and Gail Ross, both of whom linked their decision to the pressures of balancing parliament’s work culture with family life, and former minister Aileen Campbell, who also spoke about the ‘pressure’ and getting to ‘spend a little more time with my boys at home’. 

At the time of its inception, there was a great deal of academic blather about how a devolved parliament would deliver a ‘new politics’, with better opportunities for women often cited as an example. Holyrood would be more ‘family friendly’ than Westminster, would elect more women and, it was theorised, this would be reflected in legislative priorities. 

Unfortunately, the best laid schemes of mice, men and political scientists gang aft agley, and 22 years on Holyrood’s promised joy remains decidedly unfulfilled. There has been progress, of course. Labour has used ‘zipping’ (selecting men and women in alternate places on the regional list) while the SNP has employed all-women lists in some contests. As a result, the first parliament elected in 1999 was 37 per cent female, whereas the cohort returned in May reached 45 per cent. 

Scotland has a female first minister at the head of a ‘gender balanced’ cabinet, and has done for seven years now. Holyrood is on its second woman presiding officer and, between 2015 and 2017, three of the five parties were represented in parliament by female leaders. Yet the policies produced do not reflect these advances. 

This is not a problem that can be laid wholly at the door of the current Scottish government. Ministers have serious questions to answer about their lack of transparency over cervical screening and their failure to provide satisfactory support to mesh patients, but for a parliament to be so acutely unmoved by the interests of half the population takes more than one sluggish ruling party with all the wrong priorities. There is a culture across the parliament — across Scottish politics — in which what concerns women seems not to concern those in power.  

Systems and structures can help, for sure, but all the zipping and gender-balancing in the world won’t change political priorities — parties have to do that. Yet after two decades, women and matters that particularly affect them are not a priority on the daily business bulletin or in the annual programme for government. 

This can’t be chalked up to a surfeit of political conservatism. Holyrood has been dominated from day one by left-of-centre parties and others that define themselves as ‘progressive’. I would wager that large majorities of MSPs in all six sessions of Holyrood so far would have described themselves as feminists, including the men. In these circumstances, Holyrood should be churning out legislation of the sort seen in the small European countries we are supposed to be emulating. 

The fault line is not left versus right but style versus substance. MSPs of all parties are great ones for statements and declarations, lapel pins and hashtags, but substantive policy turns them circumspect. Policy typically involves time, effort and money; it requires evidence to be gathered, schemes devised and legislation scrutinised. 

But most difficult of all — at least for Holyrood — is that policy means taking decisions and that often means taking sides. Whichever way you strike out, you are bound to come into conflict with some interest or group or other priority. It’s easier to stay put and make noises rather than moves. 

The brand of feminism that grips Holyrood is what you might call identity feminism. It’s about being a feminist rather than doing feminism. I blame a T-shirt that became the height of fashion a few years back and boasted the slogan: ‘This is what a feminist looks like’. For a while, or at least as long as it took to snap a picture for Instagram, it was a must-have celeb accessory, and everyone from Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Watson to Ed Miliband and Theresa May was photographed wearing one. 

When feminism becomes a matter of self-identification, rather than demonstrable efforts on issues of importance to women, it loses its power and consequently becomes more appealing to more politicians. They can get all the credit without taking any of the risks. There are many ways to define feminism (some more credible than others) but what it is not is status-seeking virtue-signalling — activism without the action. 

‘Feminism’ is one of those red-flag words that makes some people, many of them women, uncomfortable. They may not be against it in principle but they associate it with stereotypes and excesses real and invented. But feminism isn’t solely a matter of protests and polemics; those are tactics for raising awareness and getting debates started. Feminism can involve a mountain of lofty theory but in the end it’s simply about women’s lives and how they are unjustly hindered on account of being women — and about how to go about making those hindrances a thing of the past.

That’s why women being systematically failed by the health service for years — whether on cervical smears or mesh implants — is a feminist issue. It’s why government withholding information about these failings is a feminist issue. It’s why ministers not redressing these problems promptly and in a way that sees justice done is a feminist issue. 

Yet these are not the issues that light up Holyrood. We have a parliament that shows more interest in defining women out of existence by signing up to fringe theories about gender — and funding contentious organisations that promote them — than it does in making life measurably better for women. Holyrood cannot hope to change Scotland for the better — for women or for anyone else — until it changes its priorities. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail on June 28, 2021.

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