There’s been a significant shift in the London-based media’s focus over the last few weeks, as they have turned their attention to the indyref. Some are sending senior journalists northwards to prepare for a summer of campaigning. Others are dispatching a flurry of questions to organisations here in Scotland.
Some of their questions are based on the idea that Scotland is behind the times on equality. They point to the sequence of marriage equality legislation north and south of the border and ask if my organisation is worried about the dim prospects for equality in an independent Scotland.
They’re wrong on the detail – our marriage equality law has been frustratingly delayed, but it’s better and more trans inclusive than that passed by Westminster – and wrong on the broad strokes. Successive Scottish Governments have worked with Scotland’s vibrant equalities sector to deliver policy, programmes, and law that outstrip most of that in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid have campaigned effectively for violence against women services to be delivered by women’s organisations and the public sector, and not by G4S in Scotland. Scottish Transgender Alliance was the first government funded transgender-specific equality project in Europe.
Inclusion Scotland’s advocacy has produced welfare reform mitigation that recognises the needs of disabled people. Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights successfully led a network of equalities organisations in lobbying for a stronger and more effective public sector equality duty in Scotland.
Where Scotland has been able to decide for itself on the equality of women, black and minority ethnic people, disabled people, older and younger people, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, it has generally (although definitely not always) taken steps in the direction of progress. And herein lies the rub.
The devolution settlement gave Westminster all of the cards when it comes to both equalities law and employment law. Scotland cannot reshape equal pay law to deal more effectively with historic pay injustices. Scotland cannot turn the minimum wage into a living wage.
Scotland cannot stop the UK Government removing the public sector equality duty. Scotland cannot remove the £1200 fees for taking an employer to a tribunal. Scotland cannot allow asylum seeking people to work.
Previous UK governments have brought forward laws that challenged discrimination and provided some small measure of justice to groups of people that have been oppressed, marginalised, attacked, and harassed across the four nations. Even those most forward-looking governments, though, engaged with Scotland’s equalities organisations as a literal afterthought.
The bulk of UK commissions, investigations, and inquiries into equalities law and practice usually go forward without Scottish representation. The best we’ve been able to hope for is awkwardly scheduled Scottish focus groups hastily bolted on to the process after complaints from Glasgow or Edinburgh.
This period in the run-up to the referendum has enabled a truly exciting set of conversations about the Scotland in which we wish to live and work. Our sector has always had a strong sense of the possible, but talk of a Scottish constitution and the idea of a wealth of Scottish institutions to shape from scratch has provided an enticingly blank sheet of paper on which to work.
The Scottish equalities sector will continue to advocate for justice and fairness come what may in September, but the choice appears clear. Either we resign ourselves to working within a legal and policy structure that can be pulled out from underneath us following a process we can’t influence, or we take responsibility for our own affairs.
As an equalities sector, we campaign for people to have agency and self-determination. It’s time for Scotland to enjoy some of that for ourselves.
This article was written by the manager of an equalities organisation in Scotland.
The authors name has been withheld to preserve the organisation’s neutrality.