This week saw women being excluded from Parliament for wearing the colours of the suffragette movement. #Scarfgte was quickly trending on twitter with may women and politicians angry about the women being asked to leave. Russel Findlay raised the matter during the committee and the chair immediately went into a private session with loud calls of “Why” from the public benches.
Colour has always been a key part of political life in the UK, whether that be the traditional party colours of red, blue, yellow, gold and green, or more controversially orange. The suffragettes adopted the purple, green and white that has flowed through the last 100 years as the symbol of women’s rights and women’s equality. The purple stood for loyalty and dignity, the white for purity and the green for hope, and they were devised by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence who was the co-editor of the Vote for Women magazine.
Every researcher in any Parliament will tell you that every week they have a line of badges, ribbons, or other wearable symbol ready to go on any given day, with MSPs or MPs being grabbed as they walk out the door making sure they have the right symbol on for whatever cause is being recognised that day. A couple of weeks ago MPs were seen with a very large wheatsheaf on their collars that I am sure gave anyone with hayfever significant issues.
Symbols matter, we all know and understand this, whether that is a poppy, a Saltire or a Ukranian flag pin. It shows that we care, that we understand the issues and that we show our solidarity. For religious groups this is of course doubly important. Wearing a cross shows your commitment to Christ, other religions have specific dress or headwear that people are required to wear for religious reasons. Symbols matter.
Freedom of expression is key in our modern society and the freedom to wear symbols of our beliefs or causes that we support is also of paramount importance. No one can own or claim a colour to be their own, the gender critical movement do not own the suffragette colours, any more than the SNP own the saltire or Conservatives own the colour blue. To suggest such a thing is nonsense, and to exclude someone from public debate because they are wearing a particular colour is quite frankly outrageous.
I remember some years ago British Airways attempted to ban an employee from wearing a cross necklace, this was quite rightly knocked back in the courts due to freedom of expression and belief legislation.
Symbols are important but they are only as important as the thinking that lies beneath them. We shouldn’t be picking up a symbol and wearing it without understanding the thinking and beliefs that lie behind them. MSPs/MPs that trustingly put on the right pin for that day should probably be doing a bit more research into what they are wearing and why, because symbols do matter, but only because they symbolise something deeper.
The women who were attending the committee, wearing scarves in the colours of suffragettes, were making a statement. They were making a statement about their beliefs in the rights of women and therefore they were saying something about their views on the Bill that was being discussed. This was mirrored by those on the committee and in the room who were wearing rainbow lanyards. All sides of the debate being represented by those involved in this discussion. We are a healthy, modern democracy where we can have these discussions and debates in a grown up and respectful way, and to ban those wearing particular colours was short sighted.
Thankfully the Scottish Parliament officials acted quickly and apologised for the action, accepting that it was wrong. We have to continue to call out any attempt to limit debate or marginalise groups who are campaigning in these areas. I will defend the rights of those who wear rainbows as vociferously as I defend those wearing purple, white and green. But I expect the same in return.
If we don’t speak out then who will be left to speak.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.