Katharine Stewart-Murray

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-09401, in the name of John Swinney, on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the election to the United Kingdom Parliament of Katharine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl. The debate will be concluded without any question being put, and I invite those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges what it sees as the significant historical milestone of the 100th anniversary of the election of Katharine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl, to the UK Parliament on 6 December 1923, as the MP for Kinross and West Perthshire; recognises her as the first female MP from Scotland, who, it believes, broke barriers and paved the way for women's representation in politics; commends her unwavering commitment to opposing authoritarian regimes throughout her career, and her consistent stance against Hitler and Nazi Germany, evident in what it sees as her brave resignation from the Conservative whip in 1938, which triggered a by-election; believes that the Unionist Party’s decision to de-select her as its candidate in the by-election undermined women’s representation in politics, and applauds what it considers to be her pioneering work in health and education, including her remarkable 36-year tenure as vice president of the Girls’ Day School Trust, which, it believes, serves as an inspiration for future leaders and reinforces what it sees as the importance of expanding educational opportunities to girls.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am grateful to members who signed the motion to commemorate the centenary yesterday of the election to the House of Commons of Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, as the MP for Kinross and West Perthshire, which made her the first woman to be elected to Westminster from a Scottish constituency.

It is not unreasonable for members to wonder why on earth a lifelong Scottish nationalist has lodged a motion and is leading a members’ business debate in the Scottish Parliament to mark the centenary of the election of a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party to the House of Commons, and I feel that the Parliament requires a bit of an explanation. First, I do so because I believe that it is vital in our politics that we look at people for who they are and what they do, rather than simply judging them from their party affiliation. I have always believed that, and I believe it ever more in today’s rather toxic political climate.

The second reason is that Katharine Stewart-Murray led an extraordinary and, in many ways, enigmatic political life that merits greater understanding and appreciation, because she did not act as we might at first sight have expected a Conservative MP who was also the Duchess of Atholl to act.

The third reason is that, as one of her parliamentary successors in the House of Commons and as a member of the Scottish Parliament, it is incumbent on me to make sure that some parliamentary acknowledgement is given.

No political life is straightforward or without question or challenge. I am sure that there will be parts of the political life of Katharine Stewart-Murray with which we will not all agree, but I believe that this centenary gives us the opportunity to ensure that there is greater awareness of a fascinating individual who made a contribution to our politics and whose work raises important questions of real validity for us today.

The very election of Katharine Stewart-Murray in the 1923 Westminster general election was remarkable in at least two respects. First, just a decade earlier, she had been a vehement opponent of the right of women to vote, yet, 10 years later, her mind had been changed and she was elected to Westminster.

Secondly, the election was a bit of a local cliffhanger. She won the seat from the Liberals with a majority of just 150 in a two-horse race. One of our Conservative colleagues, Liz Smith, was involved in a cliffhanger election in a Perthshire seat during the 2001 Westminster election. Mercifully, the majority of 48 on that occasion was in favour of my party and not hers, and our Deputy Presiding Officer might have had more than a passing interest in the outcome.

Katharine Murray was one of only eight female MPs out of the 615 who were elected to the House of Commons in 1923 and she went on to make a significant contribution to business at Westminster. She took a close interest in how people were treated in the then British empire and was shouted down by male MPs for sharing with the House of Commons the horrific details of female genital mutilation all those years ago. She believed that, if women in India were living under the umbrella of the British empire, they should be protected from practices that were not approved of by the British Government.

Her talent and industriousness were recognised, and she went on to become the first female Conservative education minister. She championed the power of education to safeguard the future of children, and the wellbeing of children became a central feature of her political contribution. When the Conservatives went into opposition, she went to the back benches and her political outlook began to take a new course. She took a keen interest in matters of international policy and became increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe. There were strands of people in the British establishment in the 1930s who were entirely relaxed about the growing spectre of fascism in Europe and did not believe that the United Kingdom needed to address the threat. Katharine Murray railed against that sentiment, which she saw as a direct threat to democracy and human rights. She travelled extensively in Europe to understand the events that were taking place and to try to comprehend the fear and the alarm that were spreading in a growing number of countries as the threat from fascism materialised. She warned of the dangers, but was increasingly marginalised and dismissed in the domestic debate.

As the Spanish civil war took its ferocious course, she was horrified by what she witnessed. She was especially alarmed by the dangers that were faced by children and the effects of the warfare on them. With others, she worked at speed to arrange for 4,000 children to be brought to the safety of the United Kingdom to avoid the horror of the Spanish civil war. Her actions were necessary in the 1930s, but they contain important lessons for us today.

Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

I thank John Swinney for securing the debate in the Parliament and for hosting the event that I attended last night. A huge array of different perspectives were shared about the life of Katharine Murray. She was a Scottish unionist and had a difficult relationship with the Conservative Party as time went on. She represented an important theme in my party’s tradition of patriotic, liberal unionism, which was shared by people such as Walter Elliot and John Buchan. On the wellbeing of children, at last night’s event, John Swinney will have heard the fascinating evidence from one of the speakers about the experience of coming to the UK from Spain. Does he have any further observations on that?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Donald Cameron’s timely intervention brings me to the event last night that I hosted in the Parliament, to which we welcomed some of the children of the children who were brought out of the turmoil of the Spanish civil war to the safety of the United Kingdom by the Duchess of Atholl. They told the stories of their parents’ survival and wanted to say one thing to the family members of the Duchess of Atholl, who were present last night. They wanted to express their thanks for her actions, because, quite simply, without them, those children would not be here today. Those lessons are vital for us as we wrestle with the current challenges in our society.

The Duchess of Atholl’s acute interest in the rise of fascism led her to closely study the contents of Hitler’s words in “Mein Kampf”. She read the original text in German—she was a German speaker—and felt that the English translation that was originally on offer did not properly convey the contents of Hitler’s full plan. Therefore, she arranged for a full English translation and agitated to get the United Kingdom Government of the time to take the emerging threat seriously.

She became increasingly frustrated that she could not convince the British Government to act, so she tried to force its hand. To address the issue, she triggered a by-election in Kinross and West Perthshire, which took place on 21 December 1938—a very cold winter’s night, apparently. The huge might of the Conservative Party was deployed against her and she lost the by-election, but only narrowly. She might have lost the by-election, but events proved that her concerns were valid and legitimate.

I suspect that, if people were asked in the street, few would know who the first female MP to be elected in Scotland was. I think that it would surprise them to find that that individual was married to an aristocrat, was opposed to suffrage for women, was a Conservative and Unionist who campaigned for educational opportunities for all, helped refugee children to safety from the Spanish civil war and ended her political career to press the alarm about the rise of fascism. That, however, was the enigmatic life of the Duchess of Atholl, the MP for Kinross and West Perthshire, Katharine Murray, the red duchess.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I congratulate John Swinney on bringing this interesting debate to the Parliament, and I offer my apologies for having been unable to attend last night’s event. Like John Swinney, I think that SNP members question themselves when a debate has such a subject and we are talking about a duchess. As Robert Browning might have said, this will be my last duchess debate in the Parliament, but it is a worthwhile subject for debate.

My connection is a bit more personal, and I will try not to repeat the points that John Swinney spoke about from his position of far greater authority. After the 2011 election, the current Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and I went to Pitlochry for a break, when we visited Blair Atholl and found out about the red duchess. We were blown away by the history; we were completely unaware of the background before then.

My grandfather is from Pitlochry. He gave my father the name Atholl, which I gave my son as a second name—as it is for my brother. I have a family connection with Blair Atholl.

During the visit to Pitlochry in 2011, I learned about the importance of the immense historical figure that is Katharine Stewart-Murray and about her contribution to Scottish life. It is important to refer to that, even if it is just because she was the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons from Scotland. That was an immense achievement, when we consider that the franchise had been expanded to include only some women just five years before and would not be expanded to all women for another five years subsequent to the duchess’s election.

During Katharine Stewart-Murray’s time in Parliament, she embarked on a trailblazing political journey that was marked by a distinctively feminist outlook, although that feminism might be of a different brand from that which some feminists today would recognise. Her position was all the more difficult for that reason. As we have heard, her feminism did not stop at Gretna or Dover; it was explicitly international.

During the Spanish civil war, which is intimately tied to Scotland’s history, Katharine Stewart-Murray saw the impact of the conflict on women and girls in particular and made that the focus of her book “Searchlight on Spain”, which was instrumental in persuading the British Government to accept child refugees from the Spanish civil war, as has been mentioned.

Katharine Stewart-Murray sits within the tradition of strong women who have broken the status quo of Scottish politics. We can look to many such women, including her contemporaries, such as Lavinia Malcolm, who was the first woman councillor and first woman provost in Scotland—in my constituency and in the village of Dollar, where I live. After my election in 2007, I lodged a motion about her.

There is also Florence Marian McNeill, who was a leading Scottish suffragist, a leading light of the Scottish literary renaissance of the 20th century and a founding member of the Scottish National Party. We all know of Elsie Inglis, the well-known doctor, surgeon, teacher and Scottish suffragist, and Mary Barbour, the Glasgow councillor who famously organised the rent strikes.

There are those who came after Katharine Stewart-Murray’s time, such as Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald, who both won stunning by-election victories against significant odds and who for the rest of their lives championed difficult causes that needed a champion, much as Katharine Stewart-Murray did. We also have our first female First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, among many more—far too many to mention in this short speech.

Katharine Stewart-Murray sits firmly within that tradition of strong Scottish women of independent mind who achieved against all the odds. That is a phrase that we use now, but the realities of electoral politics 100 years ago were that it was difficult to break the mould as a woman or as an independent, as she might subsequently have been seen.

No instance shows that resilience more than her stance against authoritarian regimes, especially her opposition to Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, the Soviet Union and, lastly, Hitler and Nazi Germany, which, as we have heard, led to her deselection from what was then the Scottish Unionist Party, because her stance was out of step with the then Prime Minister Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

Of course, appeasing Hitler is now widely regarded to have been a strategic mistake in the build-up to the second world war, and even that is, to a large extent, understating it. However, it is a timely reminder that, even when something might not be popular at the time, it might also be the right thing to do.

Today, the Parliament and our Government are among the most representative in the world for women. I am pleased that my party has more female MSPs than males. That has contributed to a more balanced Scottish Parliament, which has one of the highest levels of female representatives in the world.

Let us see whether today’s debate is an opportunity to celebrate how far we have come in the 100 years since Katharine Stewart-Murray’s election as our first woman MP, as well as how much further we have to go. We should also use today’s debate to reaffirm our commitment to continue to work towards true gender equality, not just nationally or at UK level, but internationally.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Murdo Fraser, who joins us remotely.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I congratulate John Swinney on securing today’s debate and thank him for his overview of the life of the Duchess of Atholl. I am sorry that I am not able to be there in person in the chamber today and that I was not able to join last night’s event, for which we must blame black ice on the Edinburgh pavements.

We should also recognise the efforts of Jane Anderson, the former archivist at Blair Castle; Paul Ramsay of Bamff—[


.]—for keeping the duchess’s memory alive; and, of course, Elizabeth Quigley, who presented a very good BBC report on the duchess’s life.

This is an important date to mark, both in the context of Perthshire and Scottish politics as a whole. Today, we commemorate the life of a true pioneer in Scottish politics—the first female MP in Scotland. Elected to the Kinross and Western Perthshire seat in 1923 as a member of the Unionist Party, Katharine Stewart-Murray retained her seat until the 1938 general election. As we have heard, she was a complex and controversial character in her time. She was a rare independent thinker at a period when the existing order of the international system was both turbulent and volatile. Her views were often out of step with the consensus of the day, not least in her party.

Katharine Marjory Ramsay was born in 1874 and, in 1899, married John Stewart-Murray, who was the Marquess of Tullibardine and, later, the 8th Duke of Atholl. At that point, he was the Unionist MP for West Perthshire but had to surrender his seat in 1917 on inheriting the dukedom. At that point, the seat was won by the Liberals, but Katharine won the seat in 1923. She went on to serve in Government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education and was the first woman, other than a mistress of the robes, to serve in a British Conservative Government as a minister.

As John Swinney has reminded us, the duchess had been a vigorous opponent of female suffrage—in fact, one of the leading campaigners against it in Scotland—but that did not stop her standing for Parliament when the opportunity arose. That was one of a number of controversial positions that she held. Famously, she aligned herself with a number of causes that did not endear her to the Conservative leadership of the time. She was an active supporter of the republicans in the Spanish civil war, which earned her the nickname “the red duchess”. She was closely involved in humanitarian efforts and became chairwoman of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. In that capacity, she was successful in persuading the British Government to admit child refugees from Spain.

The duchess was also very concerned about the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany. Her willingness to go against the prevailing view adopted by the appeasement wing of her party in relation to recognising the threat posed by Nazi Germany proved not only commendable but right. However, it was the decision to side with the likes of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden that would later cost her her seat in the House of Commons. She faced a deselection process, orchestrated from the top of her party, and subsequently stood as an independent candidate. She faced an exceptionally nasty campaign, in which her former party threw everything at ensuring that she was defeated.

Despite numerous accounts of irregularities, including threatening behaviour within the constituency, she was only narrowly defeated by 5.8 percentage points. Some have argued that, had the election been held just a few weeks later, or had the confirmation of Hitler’s intent in Europe been projected to the world earlier, that would very likely have resulted in the opposite outcome. What the duchess had long argued then became indisputable—that Nazi Germany presented an existential threat to Britain, to stability in Europe and to the existing world order. Like Churchill, she was proven right.

As Scotland’s first female MP, she was certainly a trailblazer. However, the duchess was not someone who was loved by party managers; she was someone who knew her own mind and was prepared to be outspoken for the causes that she believed in. We could do with a few more cast in her mould today.

She was a woman with a remarkable story, and it is right that we remember the anniversary of her first election, and join to pay tribute to her legacy.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I thank John Swinney for bringing this motion on Katharine Stewart-Murray before us. I do not think that it would be breaching a confidence if I recall a conversation that I had with John Swinney just after he stepped down as Deputy First Minister.

“I will spend all my time on the back benches”,

he told me,

“attacking the Tories”,

and yet, here we are, in only his second members’ business debate from the back benches, and he is asking us to praise one of them. However, I think that what he said earlier on about that is quite important.

I also have to make a confession—the Duchess of Atholl does not figure very prominently on my bookshelves, so my reading and my speech might be a little selective. Of course, the firebrand MP Jennie Lee was a contemporary who was first elected to Parliament for North Lanarkshire in 1929 at the age of 24, at a time when there were still very few women in the House of Commons. Jennie Lee’s biographer, Patricia Hollis, records that, although Katharine Stewart-Murray had actively opposed women’s suffrage, she

“found herself radicalised by her time in the House.”

Tom Johnston also recalls the duchess in a footnote in his 1952 publication, “Memories”, but his rather more polemical, notorious and, so, memorable book, “Our Scots Noble Families”, nearly half a century earlier, made a rather different point. He said:

“The history of the Stewart-Murrays reads like an Arabian romance of successful crime”.

His chapter on the family begins with the Edward Carpenter couplet:

“A robber band has seized the land,

And we are exiles here.”

Johnston goes on to declare:

“the most virulent critic of our hereditary rent-drawers and land-grabbers could never honestly deny that the Atholl family motto of ‘Furth, fortune and fill the fetters’ had been scrupulously acted up to”.

He continued:

“the only unfortunate thing being that it was always other people who filled the fetters”.

On a brighter note, the duchess also appears, as a footnote, in Hugh Thomas’s seminal work on the Spanish civil war. Hugh Thomas concludes that the red duchess’s “Searchlight on Spain”, published in 1938 and selling more than 100,000 copies,

“was the most successful of all the propaganda books on the Spanish war.”

She chaired the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief and it was in that role, helping to rescue 4,000 refugee children from the Basque Country, that the duchess made a real, practical, humanitarian difference.

I agree with respected writers such as Daniel Gray in that, in truth, I do not think that the ennobled, upper-class, blue-blooded Katharine Stewart-Murray was red at all, but she certainly distinguished herself as a member of Parliament who was anti-Franco, anti-fascist and anti-appeasement—a stance that made her unpopular among the British political establishment in the 1930s. Patricia Hollis also describes how

“The culture of the Commons was of course exaggeratedly masculine—rowdy, boozy, assertive, and quarrelsome”.

It is a culture still too prevalent in politics today.

Going into that, the first woman MP elected in Scotland had to fight to be heard, but in so doing she became the first woman ever to hold office in a Conservative Government. She resigned the Conservative whip in 1935, in part over its position on constitutional reform in India. When she fell out with her party for the last time in 1938 over—let us remember—the Munich agreement, she possessed the political principles to resign her seat and fight a by-election. Were only those same principles applied today.

I thank John Swinney for lodging the motion. I hope that, in return, he and other MSPs will sign up to motions that I have submitted in the past few days on last week’s centenary of the death of the great red Clydeside socialist John Maclean, and on the 25th anniversary of the passing of the heroic miners leader and political visionary Mick McGahey. It is important that Parliament marks the lives of those noble leaders of the working class, and it is right that we find a place in Parliament for not just history that is made by those from selected stock, but history which is made by the masses.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

It is my great pleasure to take part in today’s debate. I heartily congratulate John Swinney not only on bringing the debate to the chamber but on hosting the fabulous event that I attended last night, which has already been referenced. Hearing from Katharine Stewart-Murray’s great-nephew, Paul Ramsay, as well as the children of the youngsters she brought to the UK, truly was a mesmerising experience.

More importantly, I must thank John Swinney for bringing the said lady to my attention. Like many, I have to say to my great shame that I had no idea who she was, despite her relevance to my Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency, and, most importantly of all, what she accomplished in a quite remarkable life.

As John Swinney said, the fact that she became a member of Parliament is all the more remarkable given that her initial stance was against women’s suffrage. Even after her election, she voted against lowering the age at which women had the right to vote, so to say that she was complex is a bit of an understatement.

There is also the dichotomy between her privilege and upbringing and the causes that she chose to pursue, but, for me, that demonstrates her humanity rather than her heritage. None of us chooses the family or the lifestyle that we are born into, and the important thing is what we do with our lives and how we shape our circumstances.

As a nation, we laud the great men of entrepreneurial spirit who have helped to shape our country, especially the self-made ones, and yet I did not even know who she was. That is a societal problem that we have to challenge to this day.

Kitty Murray might well have been born into privilege, but she used that privilege to great effect in helping others, as colleagues have stated, despite the fact that she got herself into considerable problems in the process. She lost the election that she forced, but she had considerable public support. In “The ‘Red Duchess’—Katharine, Duchess of Atholl”, a book by a gentleman called Mike Levy, he quotes her response to the local Conservative and Unionist CA leader asking her to tone down her support for the Spanish revolutionaries. She said:

“I am sorry that you hear of objections from constituents about my visit to Spain but I hope these will gradually lessen ... I think public opinion down here is turning a good deal since the destruction of Guernica, and I hope that my letters to the newspapers will help to enlighten opinion a little”.

The fracture with her local party would become unbridgeable the following year.

However, she clearly had support, because during the election campaign that she forced and was fighting, the following was written in

The Scotsman by John Dick of Glasgow:

“Defy the Fascist hordes

With challenge strong and clear

Though loud their drums and bright their swords they’re sick at heart with fear.

Scorn Hitler’s blatant nose

And Mussolini’s fray

And when they hear a manly voice

The cads will slink away.

The listen on the air in Berlin, London, Rome;

Then tell the rogues that these mountains bare

Are still the freeman’s home.

The world is on the rack

O Scottish hearts be true

And send the noble lady back

Or—endless shame on you!”

History has shown that she was absolutely correct.

The author Amy Gray is currently writing a book that is due to be published in 2025. I do not normally look forward that length of time for the release of a book, but that is one that I will definitely pre-order so that I can learn even more about the remarkable Kitty Murray, the Duchess of Atholl.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I congratulate

John Swinney not only on bringing the motion to the chamber for debate but on his speech. I could agree with what he said.

It was very interesting to hear Richard Leonard make known to members the revelation that what motivates John Swinney today is attacking the Tories from the back benches. That makes the motion even more remarkable. I pay tribute to John Swinney for organising the event last night, and I give belated apologies for my absence.

Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, stands as a figure of rare courage and principle. Her legacy is etched not only in her groundbreaking political milestones, which have been referenced in the speeches that we have heard, but in the unwavering stance that she took against the tide of popular opinion in her own party.

Donald Cameron was quite right to identify the fundamental tension that sometimes existed between Scottish unionist members of Parliament and the Conservative Party. It is Katharine Stewart-Murray’s commitment and convictions, at such a steep price—her seat in Parliament—that draw my admiration. Those outlast the constraints of time.

In 1923, Katharine Stewart-Murray engraved her name in history by becoming Scotland’s first female member of Parliament, as we have heard. She did not rely on quotas or all-women shortlists. She did so on the basis of her sheer force of personality, dedication, hard work and prowess. It was a testament to her talent.

The 1930s were difficult times for the world and for Scotland. We have heard all about that. There was support for totalitarianism around the world, and that was manifest in the United Kingdom. Perhaps we should approach that period of history from the point of view that the people who were involved at the time might not have known the full extent of the horrors that were to be unleashed on the world by the forces of fascism and communism. However, we must learn from those mistakes.

It is absolutely right to say, as a couple of members have, that the British establishment had somewhat nuanced views on fascism and Nazism. The SNP has an interesting and colourful period in its history when leading figures within its ranks were known to have sympathies for fascism and, indeed, Hitler. Katharine Stewart-Murray saw through the forces of totalitarianism. She knew by instinct and principle that she was against them. She was a vocal critic of regimes such as Stalin’s Soviet Union, and she abhorred the very notion of a state dictating the private lives of its citizens. Her belief in individual freedoms and the right to self-determination was unwavering, and it manifested itself in vocal condemnation of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, for example.

As has been mentioned, she went to Spain in 1937 with other parliamentarians from the House of Commons. She registered her open dissent against the non-intervention policies of the then British Government in the Spanish civil war, and that led her to chair the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. Her book “Searchlight on Spain”, which Richard Leonard referenced and which was a best seller, was a bold critique of the conflict. It flew in the face of the Conservative Party’s then prevailing sentiments and drew considerable opposition from the leadership of the party. That is what eventually led, sadly, to her political demise.

Katharine Stewart-Murray was no stranger to conflict with the Conservative Party. Her resignation over the India bill, her opposition to the Government’s domestic policies in 1935 and her opposition to the policy of appeasement in relation to Nazi Germany in 1938 highlight her unyielding commitment to her beliefs. As has been mentioned, her unwavering stance against prevailing party lines led to her eventual ousting. She resigned. There was an orchestrated campaign against her before she resigned and an orchestrated campaign to unseat her when she stood as an independent candidate in the by-election that has been referenced.

Katharine Stewart-Murray’s political life speaks volumes. Her message transcends historical context. The truth is that, in our Parliament—in many a Parliament—at times, the weight of party machines and whips stifles authentic debate. As we commemorate a century since the election of Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, the lesson that I take to heart is that it is imperative that we, as individual parliamentarians, stand firm for what we believe in and have a right as individuals to believe in, even if it means diverging from the prevailing consensus in the chamber, popular opinion, establishments and even our parties.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

I am grateful to John Swinney for lodging the motion and giving us the opportunity to mark the centenary of Katharine Stewart-Murray’s election. As we have heard, she was an unusual character. I doubt that she and I have a great deal in common, but I feel a connection with her journey from initially campaigning against women’s suffrage to standing for election. I have never been opposed to women having the vote, but, back in 2014, I argued against the vote being given to me and other 16 and 17-year-olds in the independence referendum. I genuinely and strongly believed that I should not be given the vote.

Going from that standpoint to becoming the youngest member of the Parliament and the Government and now being a firm supporter of the right of 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, I understand Katharine Stewart-Murray’s journey. It shows the impact that enfranchising people can have and how the best of us can internalise misogyny and inequalities, including those of us who are victims of that. I am sure that Katharine Stewart-Murray was genuine in her opposition to women’s suffrage in the beginning, but the context in which she lived, in which it was accepted that women were not equal, and then the vote being extended clearly had an impact on her belief system and perhaps on her view of herself.

I enjoyed Richard Leonard’s suggestion of radicalisation by exposure to men in politics. Many women and feminists in politics nowadays can sympathise with that. That leads me to the other reason why I welcome the motion: it gives us an opportunity to reflect more widely on how women’s experiences and representation in politics have evolved in the past century. It is easy for us to see that things are better 100 years later, but that is a considerable time frame and change has been slow.

We often hear from people who do not want to talk about or accept the problem of underrepresentation of any groups that we need to have the best person for the job, as if it is possible that that is who we can get every time when inequalities are baked into the system. If we are to get the best person for the job, there needs to be equal footing for all genders, for disabled, able-bodied and neurotypical people, and for all ethnicities and sexual orientations. We are likely to get only the best white male for the job while that does not exist.

In 2021, a historic high of 58 women were elected as MSPs, which is 45 per cent of the chamber. However, it was not until 2021 that any women of colour were elected to Holyrood and that we had our first permanent wheelchair user. We now know what the impact of women in government is. The Scottish Government has introduced a number of important policies, which likely would not have been possible without strong representation of women in government. Those include free period products for all, 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare for all eligible children and our ambitious women’s health plan to reduce inequality in health outcomes for women and to improve information and services for women.

We also have a number of initiatives to support more women into politics. Engender’s equal representation project works with political parties to increase diverse representation of women. It has produced a toolkit to enable political parties to assess their diversity and policies on inclusion and to receive an individualised action plan to improve the participation of underrepresented groups. That project, importantly, brings together stakeholders working for the representation of racialised minorities, disabled people and the LGBTQI+ community, recognising that intersectional representation is needed.

Elect Her supports and equips women to stand for political office through hands-on workshops and peer support circles. Fifty-four women were supported by Elect Her in the 2022 Scottish local authority elections, with 27 of those women winning.

However, to accurately understand the situation, it is important that we look not just at the number of women who are elected each time but at how many stay on and are retained for a full term or more than one term.

We see that issue across politics. Only 35 per cent of Scottish councillors are women. We have just had First Minister’s questions: out of five party leaders here, only one is a woman and she is a co-leader in a position that cannot be filled by a man. That is not necessarily a problem in itself. We have some excellent men in this Parliament who do what they can for women’s issues. I note that John Swinney, Keith Brown, Richard Leonard and Jim Fairlie are all wearing white ribbons today. We have a male First Minister who is committed to tackling all inequalities with an understanding of intersectional issues. However, everyone but me who has spoken in the debate today has been a man.

When a pattern begins to emerge of women citing similar reasons for stepping back from public life and the impact of equalities mechanisms disappears when the mechanisms do, rather than having a long-term impact, that shows that there is a problem to solve.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can we have Mr Kerr’s microphone on, please?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I beg your pardon. That is my fault—I had not planned to intervene. I am doing so because, thus far, the minister has not really referenced the primary topic of the motion, which is the life of this remarkable lady, the Duchess of Atholl. I wonder whether she can draw inspiration from the fact that this lady showed great tenacity, self-belief and principle as the first Scots woman to sit in the House of Commons representing a Scottish constituency? Does she draw anything from that political life that could inform us in the chamber and make us all better parliamentarians?

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

Yes, absolutely. That is what I am discussing here. We see a remarkable woman who fought and fought and fought. She should not have had to. The problem is that many women are still having to fight the party system and the Parliament system to contribute to public life, as she did.

Women who get elected find barriers that they did not expect once they get here, whether that is misogyny and harassment or a struggle to access childcare or healthcare, such as menopause support, away from home. At the end of every session, we see successful women citing family or caring responsibilities when they step down. They have discovered the incompatibility of those responsibilities and their role here, and that is why they are not seeking re-election.

The Parliament’s gender-sensitive audit made more than 30 recommendations on how to improve the Parliament’s rules, practices and culture. It is important that we keep the progress going internally to improve the experience of women and other underrepresented groups. We know that the problem is wide and deep, and that the need for societal change remains. If we are listening to the stories of a woman who sat in the United Kingdom Parliament 100 years ago and are able to connect them to the lived experience of women who sit in this modern Scottish Parliament today, that shows us just how far we need to go.

We might be able to say confidently that our parties would not act in the same way towards women who dare to think for themselves, as happened to Katherine Stewart-Murray, but much of that attitude remains and is still visible.

We will not make effective societal change without women who understand both the equalities at play and how being part of the process impacts them. Women are being removed from the process due to our structures and attitudes. I thank all the men in the room who are engaging with the likes of White Ribbon Scotland and listening to female colleagues, because all those issues are connected. I encourage everyone to take notice of the remaining inequalities at play and to do whatever is in their power to tackle them.

13:33 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—