The Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale was rightly commended for her candour in discussing her sexuality during an interview with the Fabian Review. While Dugdale’s revelation was met with applause from across the political spectrum, it was interviewer Mary Riddell who earned her laurels for not letting it become a detraction from a solid political discussion.
Dugdale revealing it was “not inconceivable” that she might support a future independence vote if the UK leaves the European Union rightly garnered the majority of the scrutiny poured on her words. Still, even if the interview had been bland and her sexuality the only real talking point, it’s still doubtful if it would have made front page news at all.
In fact, what is remarkable and a testament to not only how Scotland handles LGBT issues but politicians’ private lives in general is just how non-existent the appetite for salacious scandal is.
Scotland doesn’t care, and it’s a curious phenomenon.
In recent years, there has been an advent of the silent partner, the invisible supporting hand in the lives of our political leaders. In any political photo from the last one-hundred years, you will likely see the wife of a political leader standing next to their spouse. So what’s changed?
Alex Salmond is perhaps the most famous political leader to reach high office while maintaining a literally private life. Married, his wife Moira seldom makes a public appearance and didn’t share his prolific series of engagements in the course of his tenure as first minister. Even during the vitriolic Scottish independence debate, there was never any of the ad hominem attacks typically associated with that kind of high-stakes national campaign.
Indeed, there is a strange coincidence of single-issue politicians being a public one man or woman band. Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and to a lesser extent George Galloway all maintain prolific public profiles which successfully conflate their individual popularity and what it is they’re trying to accomplish.
It’s a curiosity not isolated to the UK. U.S presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are breakout candidates whose campaigns have been dominated by personality as populism rather than populism as policy (despite Sanders’ best efforts to the contrary). Look further afield and Angela Merkel of Germany, Alexis Tsipras of Greece, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Narendra Modi of India are political forces of nature who everyone can recognise before they can tell you the first thing about their private lives, or indeed their partners (who do exist).
The abstraction of these men and women from the associations of the traditional family is partly propelled by the will of their supporters to use their charm to forge a beachhead in the public consciousness. The idea that a political leader is a martyr to their cause, alone in the spotlight and seldom discussing their other halves makes them the literal and metaphoric embodiment of the cause that they represent.
To be an example of something ordinary and relatable is precisely what ‘the alternative’ third way doesn’t need. Populism doesn’t require ‘ordinary’ because it often hinges on one individual who holds the gravitas and sway to make the unpopular and unthinkable the new mainstream. No one has any need to know about the marriages of Nigel Farage or Alex Salmond because it bursts their messianic, single-issue singularly of purpose and the anecdotal novelty which props it up.
Yet, what was once the exception at the national level of UK politics is now the standard in the Scottish political arena for all mainstream party leaders.
The idea of a Scottish leader wheeling out their spouse for the sake of it now seems an odd thought and even stranger still is the idea that they would be talked about in the national press save for an accusation of illegality or impropriety.
What’s caused the change? That four Scottish politics leaders are LGBT is a remarkable achievement, but largely a stunning sequel to the accomplishment that the three major parties are represented by women.
The re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the need for news could easily have created a copycat culture of the sexist reporting that targets women but not men elsewhere in the UK. From the commentary about how female politicians do their hair to what they’re wearing or speculation about whether or not they’re pregnant, there is an embedded sexism which personalises away from policy and deters many women from going into politics in the first place.
Instead, since 1999 an atmosphere of equality and openness has been pioneered, both in public attitudes and by the Scottish media which has created a positive culture for the respectful, albeit not mandatory, tendency of Scottish politicians to clarify their sexual or marital stance at some time or another.
The opt-in for personal is partly due to the decline of what would be labelled the ‘traditional’ family in politics. The family unit remains integral, but the need to tick the right boxes of the nuclear family in the eyes of the electorate has radically diminished (a remarkable feat given that homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1980 compared to 1967 in England and Wales).
The fact women and LGBT people have flourished so much in the Scottish politics should rightly be linked to the fact that they are less likely to subjected to dated gender emphasis or shameful prodding into their personal lives that exists elsewhere in the media. There seems to be no appetite in Scotland for scandal in politicians’ personal lives; a remarkable reality considering the comparatively small size of Scottish political life, the decline of newspaper sales and the rise of Scottish political websites (ahem) which makes the demand for a stream of copy all the higher.
What is curious now is that the de facto position of Scottish leaders, LGBT and heterosexual, is respectful and respected isolation. That they are judged on their record and not how their partners and families look, act and dress can only be good for public debate. There’s a peculiarly Scottish dimension to the idea that there is a strict dichotomy between public and private life. As the Panama Papers scandal ignites a debate about politicians at Westminster and what they’re hiding, it’s telling that no such atmosphere of distrust has emerged to challenge the basic tenant of public work and private life in Scotland.
Some political groups have repeatedly politicised the idea that Scotland is somehow more left-wing than the rest of the UK despite repeated studies suggesting otherwise. What is never mentioned, and seldom played on, is that the public-private dichotomy of politicians in Scotland is not only unique but intrinsically progressive.
This should be celebrated.