ANNIE’S SONG – for the women of Scotland
It wouldn’t have mattered much had Annie Davidson McEwen been one of Dundee’s property owners in February 1918 because her vote would never have been used, she having died in the flu epidemic later that year. Her neighbours did know the unfairness of working in jute and jam factories often in dangerous and unpleasant conditions, paying tax, as second class citizens, without the ability to influence the manner in which they were governed. These women of Scotland helped and supported each other through teenage changes and adult traumas, including childbirth at home, losses of husbands and sons in war, hunger and need. They bore children who suffered rickets, wore calipers and whose growth was stunted by want. Annie’s friends had no say in the election of Churchill as their MP but, votes or no, their steely and determined protests resulted in his being chased from their city. Feisty women will eventually take power whether it’s offered to them voluntarily or not.
My female forebears knew human sorrows which would be the stuff of nightmares; they’d children who died early and unnecessarily, they lived in homes which at times were barely habitable and they knew of or had experienced the workhouse, the poorhouse, the soup kitchen. They knitted, sewed and patched, made do and scraped a living through hard graft and sacrifice. Some of those women were barely literate but struggled to get their children to school in hand me downs and bare feet or tackety bits. And yet somehow there must have remained a strength of spirit handed down to future generations whom they sent out to the wider world in which Scotland and her people have made an indelible mark.
Despite her premature death, Annie shaped our world. Her thirteen surviving children forged paths across the globe. Her sons fought in wars almost continuously from 1914 until 1945, they worked mines, they ploughed fields, some emigrated to Australia and encountered their Scottish brothers again in the deserts of North Africa in Allied battalions fighting together in WWII. Her daughters bravely packed their bags and headed for London where they battled through the Blitz and reared families of their own. Annie’s Australian granddaughters ran a sheep ranch in Victoria and founded a dynasty in Sydney. Her Scottish daughter in law tended fields as her husband waged war, and the farmer gave her two hours off one day to attend her father’s funeral.
Then came the post-war years and had Annie been alive then she’d have applauded Jennie Lee and Nye Bevan – the NHS, Council houses, inside toilets, safer working conditions, trade unions with power and the beginning of some semblance of equality between class and gender.
Had Annie the power of time travel though there would be instances today when she’d have thought we’d set the clocks back – at times all that seems missing are the wartime ration books and stripes of tan painted on the backs of women’s legs. We don’t have workhouses again – yet – but we’ve food banks in almost every town; the DWP has become more detested than the NAB or the Buroo; there’s talk in England of privatisation of the NHS, people dying unnecessarily in hospital corridors and fines for homeless who survive on the street. Instead of public stocks and executions we’ve metal bars and spikes on public benches to remind our most vulnerable of how little they are valued.
In Scotland though we’ve brave men and women of vision determined to drive Scotland forward, to pledge our restricted and limited resources on spending which will enhance the lives of all, women and children most especially – the baby box, free guaranteed nursery provision, free school meals, child care, State assistance with further education, free university tuition, the NHS, women’s right to choose, and the drive to end the shame of period poverty. The 50:50 gender representation proposals, the fact that we’ve a female First Minister, have had a woman whom we remember fondly as our first female Presiding Officer, and that most of our political parties have been or are led by women – all of this tells us that we’ve come far since Annie’s dark days in Dundee.
But we haven’t come far enough yet; Trident remains a deathly presence the human and financial costs of which are terrifying and wasteful; our NHS is threatened by the constant depletion in real terms of our Scottish purses by the gnarled, grasping claws of Westminster – and countless Labour women from Scotland have argued against progress for our Scottish people. On that blacklist of shame I include the names of Margaret Curran, Anne McGuire, Cathy Jamieson, Gemma Doyle, Pamela Nash and countless others consigned to the electoral dustbin in 2015 after their votes with the Tories for austerity, the reducing benefit cap and the bedroom tax. These women went to Westminster to settle down, to look forward to the rewards of ermine and expense accounts and not to better the lives of their mothers, sisters, daughters in Scotland. That a councillor from Fife can sit as the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland now and have nothing to say when Scotland will become ripped out of Europe against her will speaks volumes about the depths to which the Labour Party has fallen – that lady may become responsible for her sisters losing employment rights, holiday pay, safe working conditions, civil rights, perhaps even human rights. Barbara Castle would be birlin’ in her grave.
As for Scottish Tory women? Well, seemingly we’ve one who didn’t vote in the EU referendum as she wasn’t sure what it was about……..we’ve another who when faced with unfolding constitutional crisis does a runner unless she’s promised an interview a la Marie Antoinette when she can cake her way through a series of soundbites without fear of challenge or the threat of accountability.
So what hope for Scotland’s women today? Annie can heave a sigh of relief at the sterling performance of Philippa Whitford, breast cancer surgeon who fights Scotland’s corner daily, Johanna Cherry QC no less battling eloquently for Scotland’s place in the world, Mhairi Black challenging inequality and unfairness at every turn, and Kirsty Blackman clever and kindly depute leader of a party determined to deliver democracy and to harry and hold to account a government faltering and sliding downhill in financial terms and in world popularity stakes at every turn.
I look forward to these Westminster women returning to Scotland when we bring our government home, as we will with our Independence – and they can join our other capable and fearless protagonists – Shona Robison of Dundee whose careful handling of our NHS in hard times would make Annie proud; Fiona Hyslop of Linlithgow, Annie’s daughter in law’s birthplace, who represents Scotland so well on the world stage and daily forges meaningful links with the world in which we will participate fully after Brexit hits the rump of the UK; and Nicola Sturgeon who can strut her stuff in her tartan stilletoes safe in the knowledge that she leads the National Party of Scotland who will take our country and her women into brighter, safer and happier days.