Sketch: Willie Rennie takes on the patriarchy
Parliamentary sketch: A debate on votes for women sees Willie Rennie turn to time travel in search of solutions
It was around an hour into the Scottish Parliament debate on women’s suffrage and Willie Rennie was being questioned on his approach to time travel.
In some ways it was fitting – the debate was scheduled to mark the 100-year anniversary of the first women getting the vote, and most of the day had been spent looking back at the progress made since 1918.
Nicola Sturgeon had opened proceedings by paying tribute to the women who fought the campaign for suffrage. Ruth Davidson, meanwhile, also used the debate to state her support for women’s rights, while carefully avoiding any topic which would allow the other parties to highlight the mounting evidence that austerity is hitting women hardest, or that just 19 per cent of her MSPs are female.
For his part, Rennie had started off by announcing, “Everyone has been talking about their grannies this afternoon, and I’m going to do so too.”
It was true, a surprising number of MSPs had started talking about their grannies. Willie’s gran, he explained “was one of the first women to earn the right to vote”. But despite being an intelligent woman, her choices were limited. “She had a happy and fulfilling life and may well have chosen the same route if she had had her time again. But that’s the point, she did not have the choice. However, I have a choice, a choice to make change.”
He said: “I am sure that it has not gone unnoticed that I am a white male leader of an all-male parliamentary group. I am impressed by the contribution that my colleagues make to this parliament, but that does not stop me being determined to use my leadership to change the composition of this parliamentary group for the future.”
Sadly for Rennie, it wasn’t the fact he was a white male leader that bothered people. It was the fact he was a Lib Dem.
As Christina McKelvie put it, intervening: “Would a young Willie Rennie, with the powers of time travel, go back 100 years and tell the Liberal Prime Minister to give women the vote?”
Rennie looked a bit upset at that, muttering that “we would all do things differently if we had the power of time travel”, but to be honest, it was more surprising to learn that his support for women’s rights is apparently based on the fact he had a grandmother.
There’s an old episode of The Office where David Brent, in philosophical mode, asks, “how could I hate women? My mum’s one”, and back in the chamber, Rennie seemed to be channelling the same spirit.
To be fair, Willie Rennie’s point is actually an interesting twist on a classic of the genre – the other option being the Matt Damon approach to human empathy, which is based on claiming your support for gender equality began with the birth of your daughter.
This logic suggests that, with each female relation Rennie encounters, his respect for women increases by one point. You have a mother or a daughter or a wife or a sister and suddenly you see a reason to oppose discriminating against 51 per cent of the human population.
It’s a surprisingly common approach, with elected representatives apparently compelled to base their opinions on day-to-day interactions with family members, in much the same way that Roy Walker advised Catchphrase contestants just to say what they could see.
Only last week, Jacob Rees-Mogg – a man who has previously boasted that he’s never changed one of his children’s nappies because his nanny does it – suggested he would be unable to run for Prime Minister because he has six children.
Commentators were quick to point out that this argument – and stay with me here because it gets confusing – was the opposite of one unleashed by Andrea Leadsom, when she claimed that not having children would disqualify Theresa May from the office.
But presumably it’s different for a man. To Leadsom, a woman cannot run for PM if she has no children, while to Rees-Mogg, a man cannot run because of them. Maybe too much of his time is spent supervising his nanny.
So at least the MSPs care. You can well imagine Rennie, or indeed Neil Findlay, who later made a similar argument, learning of a long lost female cousin and bursting into party HQ, clutching a family tree, and breathlessly announcing that he’s discovered he has a new principle.
Of course, that’s probably all very unfair – there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by the people around you – and so at times like this, Rennie will have been glad to be able to rely on the backing of the female Lib Dem MSPs. Or he would have been if there were any.
In fact, there used to be – before the 2016 election, most people who follow parliament would have identified Alison McInnes, the regional MSP for the north-east, as one of their best performers. But then they bumped her down the party list to make room for Mike Rumbles, in the full knowledge it would leave her basically no chance of re-election.
Still, at least women in the UK have the vote now – unless they are 17 years old, or a refugee, or homeless, obviously. But fate can be cruel, and in Rennie’s defence, he did actually succeed in changing his party’s approach to boost women’s representation for the 2017 election.
At least that’s one thing he wouldn’t need to change with a time machine.