‘Shows what political leadership looks like’. ‘The only grown-up in the room’. ‘The only leader with purpose, resolve and backbone’. These are some of the things media commentators have said about Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon since the result of the EU referendum plunged the UK into chaos at the end of last week. (If you’ve been asleep, or if you live somewhere this isn’t big news: Britain as a whole voted (narrowly—52: 48) to leave the EU, while Scotland voted (less narrowly—62: 38) to stay in.)
As usual, some news outlets have followed the unwritten rule that any positive assessment of a female politician must be served with a side-order of sexist clichés. The BBC website excelled in this regard:
“If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs… you will be a man, my son” wrote Rudyard Kipling. He may have got the gender wrong but he could have been talking about Nicola Sturgeon. …Whilst Labour and Tory politicians were playing cricket, hanging out at Glastonbury or hiding away indoors Nicola Sturgeon pulled on the power heels and took charge.
Surely, just this once, they could have spared us the lazy ‘power heels’ reference. (‘Hey, a woman leader—let’s make her shoes a metaphor for her attitude!’) And they could also have avoided that tedious gesture of presenting authority as an inherently male quality, so that any woman who displays it must immediately be described as behaving like a man (see also Margaret Thatcher, ‘the best man in the Cabinet’).
Actually, no one should be surprised by Sturgeon’s authoritative performance. Last year, when Sylvia Shaw and I wrote a book about gender and language-use in the General Election campaign, we took the linguist’s equivalent of a fine-tooth comb to the speech-styles of our political leaders. Sturgeon stood out as the best communicator of the bunch.
Of course, political leadership is not just about communication. Sturgeon is being commended for her substance as well as her style, and to some extent—depressing as this may be—simply for maintaining a public presence when the people you might have expected to ‘take charge’ (the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the organizers of the victorious ‘Leave’ campaign) were conspicuous by their absence. But in politics, facility with language isn’t just the icing on the cake. It’s a vital ingredient in any successful recipe. And Nicola Sturgeon has it in abundance.
What is it that makes her so impressive? Above all, I’d say, it’s her ability to operate effectively in a range of what linguists call ‘registers’, ways of speaking or writing that both reflect and help to define the nature of the situation. She isn’t a one-note political speaker: she knows how to vary her style and tone to suit the purposes of the moment (and she’s good at judging what the moment calls for). She can project gravitas using the traditional tools of formal rhetoric, and take down just about anyone in competitive debate; but she can also convey the sincerity and warmth we now demand from our political leaders.
Many of these qualities were on display in the speech she made after Saturday’s emergency Scottish cabinet meeting. She didn’t just focus on the most obviously newsworthy issue—whether the SNP would now be attempting to bring about a second independence referendum. She also took a moment to say this:
One group we want to reassure is EU citizens living here in Scotland. Those who have done us the honour of making Scotland their home will be protected.
Sturgeon had evidently grasped the importance of making a strong public statement of support for the non-Britons whose future was now in question. And she chose her words with care. She used the words ‘reassure’, ‘protect’ and ‘home’. She used the inclusive first person plural (‘we’, ‘us’): though strictly speaking the collective she spoke for was the cabinet, that ‘we’ was also hearable as a national, Scottish ‘we’. And she underlined both the seriousness of the issue and the explicitly positive stance her statement implied by using, unironically, the formal and slightly archaic phrase ‘done us the honour’. (She has also made the same point using plainer words and direct, second-person address: ‘you are welcome here. This is your home’.)
Addressing the nation, Sturgeon sounds statespersonlike—calm, dignified, in control. But she can also do punchier, more combative messages, using colloquial language—often laced with sarcasm—to deliver a put-down to a political opponent. In the General Election TV debates she repeatedly did this to Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband. And post-Brexit she’s been doing it on Twitter, another medium where sharp rejoinders work well. She responded to Boris Johnson’s announcement that ‘Project Fear is over’ with a withering
Indeed, Boris. Project Farce has now begun, and you are largely responsible.
Sturgeon is an effective debater, not only because she’s articulate and stylistically flexible, but also because she fights her corner. During the General Election campaign it was a constantly repeated truism that women are less competitive and more ‘civilised’ debaters than men: allegedly they do more listening and less interrupting or talking over others. The women who participated in the national TV debates (Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett) were repeatedly praised by media commentators for their kinder, gentler approach. But in Sturgeon’s case this was wide of the mark. She was actually the most frequent interrupter in both debates, and the vast majority of her interruptions were challenges to the speaker she was interrupting.
This kind of behaviour can work against a speaker, by alienating the audience; Nigel Farage, who had the second highest interruption score, did not get an enthusiastic reception in the studio. But Sturgeon’s interventions were typically well-received: as well as interrupting more than anyone else, she got more applause than anyone else. (In the second debate she got 97 seconds of applause compared to 54 seconds for Ed Miliband and only 16 for Nigel Farage.)
When Sylvia Shaw and I examined Sturgeon’s performance in detail, we noticed she had a way of framing her contributions so that she seemed to be on the audience’s side—it was as if she had intervened to voice what many of them were thinking, or to explain in plain English what other speakers were cloaking in abstraction. For instance:
When Ed talks about ‘cuts outside some protected areas’ that’s jargon. Let me tell you what that means. That means cuts to social care, to social security, to local government services, to defence. Ed’s in the position that’s he’s so thirled to austerity, so scared to be bold that he’s not even doing the right thing by the NHS. He’s not promising the money the National Health Service needs. I think it’s time not for a pretend alternative to austerity, it’s time for a real alternative to austerity.
Opinion polls and focus group studies conducted during the campaign found that Sturgeon was perceived (even by people who strongly disagreed with her political views) as ‘authentic’, expressing her own sincerely-held beliefs in her own words, whereas Miliband was criticized for repeating lines he’d been coached in by spin-doctors. It’s possible he was no less sincere than she was, but he didn’t have her stylistic flexibility, nor the knack of cutting through the jargon and the waffle to sound like someone who spoke for ‘us’ (ordinary people) rather than ‘them’ (the political elite). That’s the ability which has come to the fore again this week: whether it’s her empathy for non-Britons living in the UK or her scathing criticism of ‘Project Farce’, many people are feeling that Scotland’s First Minister is speaking for them in a way other politicians are not.
Nicola Sturgeon is not, of course, the only impressive woman in British politics. The devolved legislative bodies of Scotland and Wales have produced a number of capable leaders: Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood performed better than the media gave her credit for in the General Election debates, and the new Conservative opposition leader at Holyrood, Ruth Davidson, has also impressed commentators outside Scotland and outside her own party. At Westminster, too, there are women who are at least as well qualified to lead their parties as the men who currently do lead them. The biggest problem for these women isn’t what it’s often said to be—a lack of confidence in their own abilities, or a feminine preference for less visible, supporting roles. Of course, not everyone wants to be a leader or has the qualities to be a good one—but that’s true for men as well as women. Where well-qualified women do aspire to positions of leadership, the main problem they face is the one illustrated in my earlier quote from the BBC website: the ingrained perception of authority as male, and thus of female authority as unnatural and threatening.
As well as analysing the actual speech of politicians in the General Election campaign, Sylvia Shaw and I examined the way they were represented in the press. What we found striking wasn’t just the obvious cases of in-your-face sexism that everyone commented on (for instance, the notorious Sun picture of a scantily-clad Nicola Sturgeon astride a wrecking ball). It was the way writers’ assessments of female politicians–positive as well as negative–were implicitly guided by what seemed like extraordinarily old-fashioned assumptions about gender and authority. The cultural shorthand journalists used harked back to my own childhood in the 1970s. Women leaders were repeatedly compared to grotesque ‘battleaxes’ like the headmistress of St Trinian’s and Matron in the Carry On… films, or else to predatory ‘man-eaters’ and domineering, nagging wives (Nicola Sturgeon was likened, predictably, to Lady Macbeth, but also to Mildred in the old sitcom George and Mildred, and to a Black Widow spider who had already eaten Alex Salmond alive and was poised to do the same to Ed Miliband).
These allusions tap into a deep vein of male resentment towards women ‘taking charge’. A Freudian might say it’s about their mothers; the people who write this stuff would probably say it’s just a bit of light banter. I would say (and if saying it makes me a humourless feminist, so be it) that it’s no joke: it’s a serious problem for women in politics, and indeed in other areas of public and professional life. It’s the reason why research has found that a woman who scores high on perceptions of her authority will tend to score low on perceptions of her likeability. And since the ‘ideal’ modern leader is both authoritative and likeable, that’s a significant barrier to women’s advancement.
The existence of such a barrier is regrettable in any case, but it’s doubly regrettable in the present state of British politics. In the aftermath of the referendum we need women’s interests to be represented and women’s voices to be heard. The last week has given us more examples than we ever needed of powerful men behaving badly. Rather than presenting Nicola Sturgeon as an example of what it really means to ‘be a man’, shouldn’t the media be calling on the rest of our so-called leaders to ‘woman up’?
This post draws on research done with Sylvia Shaw, whose contribution I acknowledge with thanks–though she isn’t responsible for the opinions I’ve expressed here.