Ian Swanson: Salmond boycott aims for female votes

First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
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AS the First Minister snubs the Muirfield golf, Political Editor Ian Swanson says it may be an effort to appeal to the fairer sex

Alex Salmond wasn’t there to see the world’s top golfers tee off at Muirfield this morning – and he won’t be there to see the winner pick up the Claret Jug on Sunday.

The First Minister has won cross-party support for his decision to boycott The Open in protest at the East Lothian club’s male-only membership policy. Mr Salmond is a big golf fan and would normally have enjoyed the chance to go to one of the sport’s key events. “I just think it’s indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that’s open to all,” he said.

But some have criticised the First Minister for failing to make the most of a major international event coming to Scotland and others have said his principled position is undermined by deciding to send Tourism Minister Fergus Ewing anyway.

There is also a suspicion that Mr Salmond’s stand against sexism in sport is at least partly motivated by his need to win more women to the independence cause.

The Scottish Social Attitudes survey for last year recorded support for independence at 20 per cent among women, compared with 27 per cent among men.

Earlier this year, a study by social research body ScotCen claimed Mr Salmond’s “confrontational and often aggressive” style was among the reasons women are less likely to vote Yes in next year’s referendum. It also argued women tended to vote “more with their heads than their hearts”.

To be fair to the First Minister, women’s reluctance to back a go-it-alone Scotland predates his leadership of the SNP, as ScotCen acknowledged, pointing out it was the same when John Swinney was at the helm.

Pro-independence campaigners have long been aware of the gender gap on independence and winning over women has always been a priority for the Yes campaign.

The choice of Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as the “Yes” Minister in charge of the referendum was made with this in mind.

And there has been a string of Scottish Government announcements designed to appeal to female voters, such as Mr Salmond’s promise in his speech at the SNP conference that a “transformational” shift in childcare provision would be one of the first acts of a post-independence government.

Last month, the Yes Scotland campaign claimed private polling had picked up a shift in opinion among women in favour of independence. Using a one-to-ten scoring system to ask people how strongly they feel for or against independence, the campaign said women were moving steadily in favour.

Opponents voiced scepticism, pointing out no figures were forthcoming, but the Yes camp said the same system had correctly identified the SNP’s victory in the 2011 elections.

Pro-independence campaigners are not alone in finding it difficult to attract women. Female voters have been a long-standing problem for Conservatives across the UK and policies aimed at winning their support are expected to feature prominently in the party’s 2015 general election manifesto.

Just in case it helps, Mr Salmond is going on a so-called “bikini panic diet” – apparently used by Beyonce – which involves two days of just 600 calories of food but eating normally the rest of the week. He’s lost weight before, shedding a stone before the SNP’s 2007 election victory.

Whether boycotting The Open or any of the other efforts can sway the female vote remains to be seen. But the fact is that women probably hold Scotland’s future in their hands.