Ruth Maguire: "We can get to that place where everyone's respected and protected"
Convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, Ruth Maguire, talks about why it is so important to listen to everyone's views in order to make good legislation
Image credit: David Anderson
It’s been a tough few weeks for Ruth Maguire.
In fact, she’s had a bit of a challenging time ever since she took over as convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee in September.
She’s had to preside over some high profile and controversial inquiries during the past few months, including those looking at the age of criminal responsibility and the so-called smacking ban, which has put her personally in the firing line given that the bill’s proposer is her father, the Green MSP John Finnie.
But it was a private conversation between Maguire and SNP colleagues Gillian Martin and Ash Denham over transgender rights that really thrust her into the limelight and led to questions over her suitability as convener of a committee designed to ensure equal rights for all.
In the conversation conducted via direct messaging on Twitter – which was leaked by a former SNP staffer who described its content as “deeply concerning” – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s defence of the rights of transgender people was apparently criticised by Maguire and her colleagues.
Maguire quoted a tweet by Emma Ritch, director of feminist campaign group Engender Scotland, backing a quote by Sturgeon in which she said she didn’t see transgender rights as “a threat to me as a woman or to my feminism”.
Ritch praised the “positive feminist analysis”, to which Maguire commented, “FFS”. Martin said that the “FM a bit out of step with feelings of her group”, and the conversation was described by trans rights campaigners as “transphobic”.
“I think people read an awful lot into a few lines,” Maguire tells Holyrood in her usual calm and measured manner. “I’m not going to comment on that conversation itself.”
While her decision to keep quiet about the leaked conversation is understandable, her views were made clear just a few days after the exchange was made public on Twitter when she became one of 15 leading SNP politicians to sign an open letter on the issue of women’s and transpeople’s rights.
In it, they stated that “conflating sex with gender identification affects a wide range of policy and service delivery including data collection, education, health and social care, justice and sport” and that the subject deserved to be “properly scrutinised”.
“In terms of that statement, and I speak for myself personally not for colleagues here who would have their different views or reasons, I felt it was important to have something set out quite plainly and simply that stated that I was for everybody’s human rights and wanted everyone to live in a dignified way and that’s the top line,” Maguire says.
“We can get to that place where everyone’s respected and protected together but we will have to talk about it.”
Getting to “that place” currently feels like an uphill struggle, particularly in an environment where people seem scared to talk openly about proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act for fear of being deemed transphobic.
Does Maguire really think this is achievable?
“I do,” she says. “I don’t know exactly how. I wish I could say, ‘right, here’s a plan, here’s what we’ll do’. As MSPs, we have to do our job which is examine the evidence, debate the evidence and I think we also have to try and be a bit kinder and compassionate – and by ‘we’, I mean the community, all of us.
“It’s an important matter and to use the example of equal protection [the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill], it was spoken a lot about parents’ rights versus children’s rights and our committee came to the conclusion that actually, that’s not the situation, it’s not rights necessarily competing with each other.
“If you think about the family’s rights or what makes a better community then you can get to a place where everyone can be their authentic selves and they’re protected from discrimination. Or more than protected from discrimination – that’s quite a low bar – where they’re living their best life.”
Maguire says she has learnt a lot from the inquiry into equal protection – or the smacking ban as it is known colloquially – with the best lesson being about listening to all sides of the debate, even when it sits well outside your comfort zone.
“I think everyone’s got their own beliefs in terms of what they think is right and wrong. I’m really clear that my job – and it would be my job as MSP not just as convener – is to look at the evidence and have that inform the detail and have that flag up unintended consequences.
“You can strongly agree with a principle but you still have to do the work to scrutinise the detail and to hear from people who don’t agree with it and why they don’t agree with it and what they’re worried about or fearful of and sometimes those things can be addressed while still progressing the principle that you’re trying to achieve. It’s not difficult to do that because if you don’t, you’ll create bad legislation and negatively impact on people.
“I think it’s really important to hear views that actually sometimes you’re really quite uncomfortable with and that was, through some of the equal protection stuff, it was quite challenging to hear some of the ideas about physically punishing children but I think it was really important that we did that because I can, hand on heart, say that we did listen to the people who wanted us to engage with them.
“I’m totally opposed to physically assaulting anybody, particularly people that are smaller than you. I think because you think about your own children and your feeling towards them. One thing I would say, there was nobody that gave evidence to us, certainly the people that we met, I can’t speak for everyone that wrote in, but there was nobody who was anything other than a loving parent, they just have a very different view on what’s best and I think if you keep that in your head…but it is difficult.
“I actually had almost quite a physical reaction to it some of the time, I actually found it quite uneasy.”
Maguire says that she is “still learning” after having only held the position for a matter of months, but it’s clear she takes the role very seriously.
For her, she says, the role is about “ensuring the right scrutiny takes place” and making sure everyone’s voice is heard.
“It’s not easy, it’s challenging but good challenging,” she explains. “I’ve found it useful because it’s been a reminder that my community’s made up of people with many, many different opinions and views and positions and I think it’s useful for us – as politicians and probably even as the media, as communities – to remember that and try to move away from that positional negotiation where you think one thing, I think another and we shout loads of views at each other and one person wins, one person loses. It’s been really valuable for me. I feel like it’s been a bit of a development opportunity.”
She adds: “People would think it’s a nice fluffy committee but it’s really, really meaty issues we’re dealing with. Our next bit of legislation will be the female genital mutilation bill. I fully expect it to be devastatingly upsetting, I don’t think it can be anything other, but hopefully what we produce at the end will help inform parliament and we will have good legislation that tackles the problem.”
Despite being under a lot of pressure in the last few weeks, Maguire seems, on the face of it at least, to be able to let it wash over her and she appears remarkably level-headed when it comes to the personal criticism she has faced.
“You always get the odd nasty letter or personal thing, and there were some, but I think you get that anyway, it’s just part of the job. I try really hard not to [take it to heart]. I think it’s almost…you have to kind of brush it off and not have too much of your value based on what other people think of you. And that goes for the praise as well as the negative stuff.
“There’s part of me that feels that when people are going for the person rather than the policy or the argument that it’s probably reflective of where things are at in the debate.”
Maguire points out that it’s even easier to be “horrible” on social media, so it’s probably no coincidence that she has opted to switch notifications off on her Twitter page so she doesn’t have to see comments flashing up on her phone when she’s at home or spending time with her daughters, aged 17 and 22.
“One of the things that is challenging is family members seeing things like that because they feel it hurts them, they didn’t sign up for that so that would be the bit that would be challenging,” she says.
“I think – and I don’t think this is just specifically about politicians – I think we’ve got a community-wide issue with the way we talk to each other online.
“If you’re not looking into someone’s eyes, it’s maybe easier to say something horrible about them or to dismiss them. But I think there’s things people can do to protect themselves from that and as politicians – and again, the media have a role in this as well – I think you can try and lead by example and I would certainly try and do that myself.”
With that in mind, how does Maguire feel about her privacy being violated through the leaked conversation and the subsequent backlash and abuse hurled at her on Twitter?
“I suppose all I would say about it really is, I don’t think there’s anybody, whether they’re in the public eye or not, who would want their private conversation put on the internet and would want lots of comments from people that are negative,” she says.
“The other thing that I would reflect on as well, though, is that my personal discomfort at that happening is nothing compared to what vulnerable people are going through and the people who this debate or this topic is about, so I’m acutely aware of my privilege and the protection I have through the platform I have to speak on and the good friends and colleagues that I have around me.
“I think the one thing I would want from the whole episode would be that we could have the conversations that we need to have and, as I said before, even where we agree with something, to make good legislation, it has to be scrutinised properly. People have to feel free to talk about laws that are being made and I would want that to happen in a respectful and compassionate way.
“Again, I think it’s not helpful the online thing and I probably would say that there are certain things that you just shouldn’t even attempt to negotiate on an online platform that gives you a limited number of characters because I think they’re too serious, they’re too nuanced, they’re too important and too many people end up hurt and worried if we try and do it.”
Growing up in a house where political discussions were commonplace, Maguire had an interest in politics from a young age but did a series of jobs – including sales and marketing manager, hypnotherapist and Gaelic tutor – before going down this route.
She served as a councillor on North Ayrshire Council from 2012 to 2016 before being elected as the SNP MSP for Cunninghame South in 2016.
“I was always interested in politics, but more as an activist, I can’t claim that I’d always wanted to be an MSP,” she tells Holyrood. “It was really the campaign for nuclear disarmament. I remember seeing the Chernobyl disaster – [it] had a massive impact on me as a child. I used to go to Faslane and go on marches and things and then obviously, the anti-war stuff as well that happened later on.
“My house was quite political but probably not party political. My mum was a social worker and my dad was a police officer, so themes of justice and social justice were always quite strong in our house.”
With father and daughter both sitting MSPs representing different parties – Finnie quit the SNP in 2012 – does it make their relationship difficult at all?
“All fathers and daughters have awkward dinner-table conversations. There’s many things we agree on, there’s lots of things we’ve got different positions on, but it’s part of politics and it’s healthy and normal. It would be quite weird if we all agreed on everything. We talk about football quite a lot – the two topics you shouldn’t talk about. We do support the same team, that would be a difference too far!”
Her father, in his work on the equal protection bill, admitted to having occasionally smacked Maguire when she was a child, but despite her own views on hitting children, and her position as convener on the committee examining the bill, she doesn’t believe this has put her in an awkward position, pointing out that she is a “grown woman”.
“I suppose like many people who grew up in the eighties, my upbringing would be different to how we choose to parent children now. There’s nothing about my life or my family that’s conceivably possible to embarrass me or cross a line so I would never say that.
“I don’t think my childhood was uncommon. I think most people would have had the odd skelp.”
She adds: “It’s a fact that people elected us both to the parliament, we’re in different parties, he’s got his job to do in moving the private member’s bill and I have mine.”
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