5 Dec 2016
Please find below the text of Ruth’s speech at the Rhondda lecture at the Institute of Directors, where she made a call to avoid a “divisive Brexit” both in within the UK and across Europe.
Good evening everybody.
And can I thank the IOD for inviting me this evening and for all the work you do in promoting successful and responsible business across the UK.
Let me begin this evening by paying warm tribute to your outgoing Director General, Simon Walker, who I know will be leaving the organisation next month.
Simon, like me, is a former journalist. And I can tell you: putting journalists in actual charge of stuff is something of a gamble.
We tend to sometimes to take the odd flyer and say outspoken things.
[And that is not a comment meant to fuel the media obsession with my relationship with the Foreign Secretary…]
All I can say is that, in the case of the IoD, it is a gamble which has worked.
Simon has been a bold and radical leader of the IOD, who has taken a principled stand on issues like excessive executive pay and corruption.
We should all acknowledge that this venerable organisation is far, far better for his leadership these past five years.
And of course, I’m also delighted this evening to share top billing this evening with another journalist: my fellow Scot, Laura Kuennsberg, whose father, Nick is a former IoD board member in Scotland which means we often bump into each other while supporting Institute events north of the border.
Laura, as you all know, is now Britain’s leading political editor.
But she really made her name in broadcasting as the political correspondent who could be relied upon to stand anywhere on any street and just keep talking, even when there was absolutely nothing to say around her.
I have to tell people here this evening: this is a common trait found in many, many Scots.
So, if I go far beyond my allotted 20 minutes this evening, please – someone – do stop me.
Can I also say what an absolute honour it is to be giving a speech named after the extraordinary Margaret Mackworth, or Viscountess Rhondda, the president of this organisation between 1926 and 1936.
It is hugely to the credit of the IoD that it should have chosen to keep this remarkable woman in the public eye through this event because this is a life that should be neither forgotten nor overlooked.
A life-long Sufragette, she was jailed for setting fire to a post-box in protest, survived the sinking of the Lusitania, got divorced when separation was still a scandal, and as a woman who grew up a stone’s throw from St Andrews myself, I’m delighted she used the golfing town as the site of her – successful – attempt to mount the running boards of Prime Minister Asquith’s car in order to press home her point.
A great champion of business, she sat on the board of no fewer than 30 companies – when women in the office were supposed to bring the tea – and throughout her life was one of the great advocates of women’s rights when the cause wasn’t so much unpopular as unseemly. She was part of the petticoat praetorian which helped clear the way for the women who came after.
Now, the IoD very helpful sent me a biography of her time and it really does speak to one of the great 20th century lives.
I was particularly struck by one story from when she was 16, when her family’s tried to turn her into a debutante.
She noted: “One might as well have tried to put a carthorse into a drawing room as turn me into a young lady at home.”
As someone who’s always considered themselves more of a workhorse than a show pony, I have a certain sympathy with that one.
Several other things strike you about her life.
You cannot be moved by how far we have come since her day. This was a woman who inherited her father’s title but – despite her many efforts – was barred from taking her seat in parliament’s upper house – a law that was changed only in 1958, three months before her death.
But you are also struck by the fact that the world of business and commerce did NOT throw these same barriers in her path as those of public life – and that she was able to use her position in the business world to offer other women a foothold in work.
Perhaps that points to a lesson; one we shouldn’t forget: that trading and selling to one another are not just efficient ways to organise a society, but they have the power to bring with them huge social benefits too.
Under Simon’s leadership, there is no question that the IoD has advanced that very argument – making the responsible and ethical case for trade and capitalism.
I think we can all agree that, at a time when trust in elites is so low, it is a role which is utterly vital.
We are all pro-business here:
But if we are going to convince people of the merits of free trade, we must show over and over again what a positive force for society business can be for all people, not just those at the top.
So, in honour of Viscountess Rhondda, I was asked this evening to use tonight’s address to talk about my experience as a woman in the public eye, and what more needs to be done to improve things for the superior sex.
I will do that – but also in honour of Viscountess Rhondda, I’d also like to throw away the instruction manual and get onto things I want to talk about as well.
And since I’ve got a platform here in London, that means talking about the primary political issue of Britain leaving the European Union.
I’ll get onto that shortly. But firstly, my experience as football-playing, uniform-wearing, reservist soldier, daughter, sister, auntie, Sunday school teacher, journalist, charity worker, broadcaster, Presbyterian, Tory, lesbian, kickboxer leader.
So, pretty mundane, really.
I was born in the winter of discontent, so no surprise I’m a Conservative. And the mum of my childhood best mate told me a story when I next met her after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. She says she remembers me and Cheryl, running back to her house from school. And that she told us when we came in that Britain had a new Prime Minister and it was John Major. And I immediately turned to her and asked ‘Can a man even BE Prime Minister?’ because I’d never heard the likes.
And from being the first girl ever to play for Largo boys under 14s football club, to spending my adult life working in newsrooms, army barracks or parliament, I have always operated in male dominated environments.
My greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. I am dogged and cussed and contrary. You tell me I can’t do something, and I’ll show you.
And because my own motivations have been a particular chippieness allied with a rather unbecoming competitiveness and that tremendous Presbyterian quality not to make others proud, but rather not to let anyone down – which is a far stronger motivating factor – I had never really been one to subscribe to idea of role modelling. Despite having so many strong women in my life from THAT teacher that I ached to be to an older sister who outshone me at everything before I began (she’s now a brilliant doctor AND a mother of 4) so I’m STILL underperforming.
But all of that disregard changed five years ago and my entire outlook was transformed.
The fortnight after I was elected Scottish Conservative leader, I got dozens of emails from young gay people, mostly boys, but some girls as well. Almost all of them started “I’m not a Tory but….” This was Scotland 2011, after all.
But they all had one thing in common. Whether it was people saying they weren’t out at all, or they were out at school but not to their parents or whatever, they said that they never thought politics was something they could do, but they were really pleased to see me elected.
Now, it had never occurred to me – not for a second – that it actually mattered to anyone outside the membership who the leader of the Scottish Conservatives was.
That it mattered that there was a first openly gay leader of a major political party anywhere in the UK.
But some of these emails were acutely personal, others utterly heartbreaking. And I promised myself that I’d write back personally to each of them – which I did – talking in quite personal terms about my own journey. And it is of huge credit to those young people that none of those letters made it into the public domain.
And the other thing I promised myself was that I would never not answer when asked about my sexuality. As worried as I was about being seen as just ‘the gay politician’ when I had so much more I wanted to say for myself, I promised that I would never duck or shun or demand that questions were avoided because it did matter. It mattered to some people out there that they saw ‘someone like them’ doing something they’d always wanted to do, but never thought they’d be allowed to. And I’ve always stuck to that.
So now I’m a fully-paid-up subscriber to the idea that role models can make a difference. That seeing someone break a barrier makes it easier and more accessible – more attainable – for those who come after.
And we’re seeing the world change.
And from Angela Merkal in Germany, Theresa May in Downing Street, to Janet Yellen at the US Federal Reserve, this is a particularly rich moment for women in public life around the world.
A fortnight ago, I did an event with the journalist, Tina Brown, about women in the world. And the panel before mine – of a democratic congresswoman and two female American news anchors – were leading the wake for Hillary Clinton and saying that it had put back feminism by dozens of years.
As much as I’ve made my own views clear on the man that beat her to the Whitehouse, I actually don’t believe that 2016 will be seen as the year women’s politics in the US was knocked back.
With more distance, we’ll see the first ever female nominee of one of the major parties. And we’ll also recognise the women who broke through barriers of race, religion, sexuality and disability from coast to coast across the body politic in the US.
Kate Brown – the first openly LGBT woman ever elected governor of a state.
Tammy Duckworth – Asian-American, is a double amputee war hero and the first ever disabled female senator.
Catherine Cortez Mastro – the first ever Latina Senator
Kamala Harris – only the second ever black woman in the senate.
In the house of representatives – you have Stephanie Murphy the first Vietnamese-American Woman elected to congress; Ilhan Omar, hijab-wearing Muslim who’s the first Somali-American and Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian American woman in congress. This is the generation which will take us forward.
November may have been a body-blow to those who wanted to see a woman in the white house. But I think – many years from now – we are going to look back on this moment, and see that this is the point where women across the world woke up to the fact that it’s not going to get progressively better just because we want it to.
It’s the point where women of my generation and younger recognise that to effect change – they have to go out and fight for it, and do it on their own terms.
Now, to come closer to home, we currently have a situation in Scotland, in the Scottish Parliament, where each of the three main political parties are led by women.
I’m often asked whether this changes the dynamic. Whether it leads to a softer, cuddlier, more consensual politics.
Folks, we might be women, but this is Scotland. We practise a democratic debate which is red in tooth and claw.
While we each respect the abilities and professionalism of the other, we all have a job to do and no quarter is asked or given.
Indeed, I hope one day I’ll stop getting asked about the difference it makes – because it’s when gender becomes utterly irrelevant as an issue, that we’ll know equality has been achieved.
We’re not there yet. Not nearly.
We are not facing the barriers of Viscountess Rhondda’s time, but nor is it – yet – a level playing field.
Lots done, lots still to do.
So, I’ll sit down shortly, but let me briefly turn to the biggest political question of the months past and yet to come – Brexit.
As you know, I wanted us to remain within the European Union. If there was another vote tomorrow, I’d still back remain, because the single market helps us trade and do business.
I don’t come from a privileged background. My dad worked in manufacturing all his days, first in textiles and then whisky. Every plate of food put down in front of my sister and I growing up was because my dad made stuff and sold it abroad. I want to make it easier not harder for companies and business to do the same.
I don’t want to talk tonight about the different models of Brexit. And I certainly don’t want to talk about the Supreme Court case while the wigs are in situ up the road here.
But what I would like to talk about it the attitude and the tone we adopt as we relinquish our membership of the EU.
Because I believe the WAY in which we leave the European Union, and the WAY we conduct ourselves over these coming years is going to be vital in how we view ourselves and in deciding whether we get a good deal for us, and for Europe.
I believe Britain is one of the world’s great liberal democracies.
I believe it is a beacon for openness and tolerance.
I fought to keep this United Kingdom together in the Scottish referendum of 2014 because I believed, and I still believe, that Britain is a force for good in this world and the global community is better for Britain being fully engaged in it.
With Brexit, that reputation is now being tested.
And the global community is now watching to see how we comport ourselves.
Whether – in the words of Simon Walker – “we give way to negativity, and a nasty vision of a backward looking, introspective Britain”.
Or whether we step forward, step up our engagement.
With the US Election result, there is a need, now more than ever, for an open, transparent, democratic, G7 nation, engaged with Nato and UN and global trade to champion those virtues of liberalism, and openness and democratic accountability.
Our decision to leave the European Union hasn’t determined which path we’ll take. That’s a decision we’ll make as a nation.
And one indicator is how we carry ourselves as we proceed in the months ahead.
And to ensure we choose the path of openness and engagement, above all, I believe we must do all we can to avoid an unnecessarily divisive Brexit.
That starts with coming back together and healing the divisions here at home that the referendum campaign has caused.
Last week, I took part in Question Time in Wakefield, where two thirds of people voted to Leave.
It was striking how the echoes of the campaign were still strong.
Leave voters said they felt like they were being treated as thick and racist. Meanwhile, Remain voters who fear for the future complained they were mocked as “remoaners”.
As someone who fought a referendum two years ago in Scotland – where the divisions between Yes and No are still deep – I have some experience of this.
Let me tell you, keeping these divisions open doesn’t end well.
As the Equality and Human Rights Commission has warned recently, it ends with “widening and exacerbating tensions in our society”.
So I’d like to make a plea. Remainers need to accept that Leavers are not racist for having concerns about the EU and our system of immigration.
And – for Leavers –it’s time to follow the lead of people like Dan Hannan who point out that the views of the 48% of people across the UK who backed Remain must be heard.
Voicing concerns about Brexit isn’t “remoaning”; there are genuine issues that need to be discussed.
This process of listening is utterly vital.
And if healing the divisions starts at home, it must also be carried on with the way we conduct ourselves internationally.
Theresa May has already made it clear she wants to choose the path of openness.
That is right and it is vital.
Let’s face it, we are not short of populist nationalist political leaders right now telling anxious voters around the world that the solution is to pull up the shutters, close the curtains and withdraw from the challenges of the world around us.
Promising a safer homeland – but a darker one too.
We must not allow ourselves to be seduced by that.
Instead, let’s reassure people from across Europe who have made Britain their home that they aren’t just needed here – that they’re welcome too.
Let’s rekindle the old relationships we’ve made with all the corners of the world, to show that Britain still wants to punch above its weight as a global trading nation.
Let’s remember that the soft power this country exerts around the world is our greatest asset – and one that we tamper with at our peril.
And let’s start a proper conversation with our European friends and allies and not fall into an easy and comforting trading of insults.
That begins by acknowledging and respecting each other’s position.
I was speaking to a senior European diplomat very recently in London who was telling me what he felt about the EU vote.
This was a man who had served at the time Britain joined the EEC in the 70s.
Whose country is scarred by battlefields from two world wars.
Who saw the formation of formalised European structures and co-operation as a way to end that history of bloodshed and war.
Who felt saddened beyond words that Britain was leaving.
And who looks at UKIP politicians gleefully rubbing Europe’s noses in this result with utter despair.
So I say to those UKIP politicians: when they chuckle and bray about the result in June and how they’ve taught Europe a lesson – grow up.
Let’s show a bit more respect for our European neighbours, and allies, please.
We should do that for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do.
But even, if that is beyond their understanding, we should do it for reasons of self-interest too.
Our UK Government is going to have to sit down very soon with 27 other EU member states and find a way forward.
If we simply assume that economic rationalism will win every discussion – and we can just forget about the emotional side of this decision – then I fear we will be hampering our own negotiating position.
We are not going to get a good deal if the image we project to Europe is that of Nigel Farage needling Europeans by telling them their economies depend on hungry British consumers
Let’s show some maturity.
That way, many people in Europe might start to see things from our point of view.
Let’s face it: nobody – I suspect – goes to sleep in Britain underneath a European Union duvet cover. Not even Tim Farron.
The truth is that we have always seen the European Union primarily as a transactional project, not as something fundamental to our freedoms, identity and our way of life.
If nations in Europe grasp that, perhaps they will understand that Brexit is not about turning our backs on them and their citizens.
But that it’s about developing a new, looser, more open, more tolerant relationship with the continent and beyond.
If I were to bring this back to gender politics, I would suggest that macho, beer-swilling posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.
Perhaps it’s just as well that we’ve got a woman in charge at Number Ten.
She doesn’t drink beer and doesn’t play golf. But she does understand the critical importance of relationship management with the other 27 member states as we move article 50 and beyond.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s just about time for my grilling from Laura.
Can I say a big thank-you once again to the Institute of Directors for having me here this evening.
And to all of you, engaged in business and commerce, can I offer my thanks too.
We are going to need you ever more over the coming years, I suspect.
It is your work and your imagination which gives me confidence that, despite the uncertainty we face, we will emerge every bit the open trading nation we have built our successes upon.