Tag Archives: UK

Brexit Anniversary

22 Jun

If a week is a long time in politics, then the last year seems almost like a decade – so many seismic events and unexpected twists and turns. And somehow, here we are, one year on from the EU referendum, a time to reflect on what has happened …

As chance would have it, last year, on the day after the referendum, I was booked on the train to Scotland.  I’d forced myself to go to bed at 2 a.m., when the first signs that Leave might swing it, had begun to emerge.  It was still a surprise to find that that was what had happened, as I scrambled to get the last of my stuff together, and headed out the door later that morning.  The atmosphere on the train was unusual – a lot of thrown-together people looking slightly shell-shocked and talking in hushed tones into their mobile phones.   As we powered through the country, there were patches of flags from either side of the debate – the mood seemed one of surprise.  The news was still sinking in.

When I eventually got to Edinburgh, my first stop was the pub.  Scots were juggling the results of two successive referenda – one over independence from the UK, one over membership of the EU. I got talking with a bunch of people having an after-work pint and chewing over the day’s news.  They were a mix of Yes and No voters in the Scottish referendum, but all said then, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, that given a choice, they would vote to leave the UK in any second referendum, and seek Scottish membership of the EU.  Unlike in England, the subject of Ireland, the border and the peace process came up quite soon in conversation.  My unrepresentative little vox pop confirmed a picture of urban Scotland as firm Remain territory. I’ve often wondered if the people I met have changed their minds meanwhile, as the falling oil price and political turbulence in the year since, has seen support for a second Scottish referendum apparently diminish, and a desire for stability (ha!) become perhaps stronger.

What else has changed in the year since, concerning Brexit? In some ways remarkably little – in spite of the triggering of Article 50 and the recent snap election, we are only slightly further on in our progress towards exit.  When thinking about what will happen with reciprocal rights for UK and EU citizens living in each other’s countries, or overall freedom of movement, or being in the Single Market, I’m often reminded of that round in the QI panel show, where they ask an obscure question, and all the contestants wave a paddle in the air, signifying that ‘Nobody Knows’…. The form of Brexit we will eventually experience remains up in the air, and the complexities of disentangling ourselves from laws, supply chains and regulations often seem to be intensifying rather than resolving.

In other ways, things have changed quite a bit – the vote to leave has led to a greater understanding of divisions and inequalities in the UK, with analysis of voting behaviour showing fault lines between urban and rural populations, highly educated people and school leavers, older and younger voters.   UKIP is basically a spent force, and the recent election, paradoxically perhaps, heralded a return to two-party politics, as the Brexit vote made for a complex set of interactions with broader party allegiances. In the snap election, Labour capitalised on frustration with the consequences of social inequalities, while the Conservatives emphasised the importance of leadership on Brexit, in an electoral strategy which imploded around the failure of leadership demonstrated in the campaign. They won the election, but lost their majority, and are now all too aware of issues around Ireland and Brexit…

One year on, we have election winners who have lost, and losers who scent victory next time – which could well be considerably sooner than anticipated by the Fixed-Term Parliament Act.  Theresa May has just been  in Brussels for a dinner with the European Council, where she was looking to outline Britain’s negotiating position in more detail.  It seems that she may be aiming for Brexit a la carte. Funnily enough, we don’t have a ready English phrase for that – unless perhaps it’s cherry-picking – which is something we need Eastern European seasonal migrants to do …. There’s no chance of an all-you-can-eat buffet of options on Brexit terms, so can we hold out for some Chef’s specials? Brexit is often discussed in terms of having our cake and eating it, but we have yet to discover what proof of pudding is in our eating ….

 

 

Advertisements

Nordic models and global gender equality

30 Oct

It’s said of Winston Churchill that when he wanted a martini he would pour himself a large gin and think of France (in tribute to the origin of vermouth, the cocktail’s usual other ingredient). I sometimes think that in the UK, policies for gender equality are similarly formulated: write the reform you want whilst thinking of Scandinavia. This usually means Sweden, but with a nod to Finland for education, Norway for wealth, and this week’s much heralded Iceland, for overall gender equality.

In the midst of coverage of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index, in the UK we have paid most attention to our own drop in position. Last year, according to the WEF index, we were still in the Top 20, as I blogged in June when looking at how the World Cup countries fared in gender equality rankings. Now we have dropped to no. 26 in the table – the top 5 are all Nordic, with Iceland at number 1. Meanwhile, in the Guardian, a prominent Icelandic gender equality analyst has reminded us, that in spite of its successes, Iceland is ‘no feminist paradise’. Why not? Well, in short, because gender equality remains to be achieved.

In an index like the WEF’s, you’re presented with differences between men’s and women’s positions on economic, political, health and educational dimensions within countries, rather than levels of opportunity in each of these areas. So countries move up and down the index, depending on how they affecting the gaps between men and women’s circumstances, rather than on the actual opportunities available. Many middle-income nations therefore come high up in the rankings. Moreover, as Ms Rudolfsdottir points out in the Guardian article, the gender gap between Icelandic men and women in terms of life expectancy may not be terribly bothersome, when you recognise that both men and women live to be over 80: there’s a gap, but not at a level where it suggests that there are major failings in meeting public health needs.

In other respects, however, even Icelandic figures show that much remains to be done. Iceland is well-known for having amongst the highest female political participation rates in the world. These are boosted by a voluntary quota system for party candidates – so future success is not written in stone.

And although generous parental leave entitlements are a crucial part of Iceland’s picture of success (they have the longest period of dedicated fathers’ leave anywhere) even these measures have not resulted in abolition of the gender pay gap – although women’s participation in employment is very high at 88%. The gender pay gap in Iceland is around 20%, not dissimilar to the UK’s.   The explanation for this perhaps surprising finding, is that men and women tend to be employed in different sectors. Icelandic men are more likely to enter relatively well-paid areas such as scientific and technical sectors and construction, compared to women’s greater participation in sectors such as social and personal care, and public sector professions in administration, health and education. Other Nordic countries share this characteristic of high performance in terms of retaining women in work, but having a lesser impact on pay differentials between men and women. Gender parity will come when more girls train for professions which command the highest salaries, and/or when ‘caring’ roles attain higher value. There is, indeed, much to do…

As for the UK, we should be concerned that at a time when we are outperforming many other countries economically, our gender inequalities remain: the gender pay gap is, in fact, increasing. Levels of female participation in politics are poor here compared to our Nordic counterparts: we rank 75th in the world in terms of women occupying ministerial positions, and women still account for fewer than a quarter of MPs.

So we need to take a long hard look at the ingredients for closing gender gaps –we still have to find the perfect policy cocktail to produce gender equality in economics, politics, health and education, anywhere in the world. Whilst women’s employment rates in the UK are increasing, we now rank only 48th in the world, according to WEF. The cost of childcare is an important part of the picture: we pay high fees for a fragmented system, whereas universal, state-subsidised childcare is available throughout Scandinavia. Nordic models may not solve everything, but by paying attention to universal service provision and men’s role in the home, they have progressed further towards gender equality than we have. Let’s be stirred to further action, not shaken by obstacles along the way.

 

%d bloggers like this: