Nicola Sturgeon's rare achievement


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The 22nd of November is a momentous day in history for women in politics. It was 24 years ago yesterday that Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister. On the same day, 15 years later, Angela Merkel became Chancellor of Germany.

Given there are still only 19 women who run nations around the world today, it is worth making a song and dance when another member joins that exclusive club. For 24 years, Thatcher was the last (and only) woman to run a government in the UK – until Wednesday, when Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister of Scotland.

A woman is in power in the UK for the first time in quarter of a century, and only the second time in modern history. And yet, beyond the Scottish media, coverage of this landmark has been muted. On Wednesday's BBC Six O'Clock News, Sturgeon's milestone achievement was not deemed important enough for a full report, merely the briefest of clips. We in Westminster and the media agonise about more women landing top jobs in politics, yet when it happened, the response was a bit "so what?".

It is possible that part of this indifference is that London's media still doesn't take Scotland seriously – even after the referendum, which was supposed to have enlightened us about democratic engagement. But if that is true, it sums up London's ignorance. Sturgeon's election is important – for Scotland, for the UK, and for the progress of women.

While the Westminster political narrative is dominated by immigration and the paranoia of upsetting white van men, politics in Scotland seems much more progressive. The Scandinavian, Borgen dream of gender equality in politics is easier to imagine when two of the main parties in Holyrood have female leaders and a third had, until recently, a woman in charge.

On her election as First Minister, Sturgeon sent the message that should be the hard-and-fast rule for women in any walk of life: "If you are good enough and if you work hard enough, the sky is the limit and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams." She spoke of her eight-year-old niece, Harriet Owens, who was in Holyrood to watch: "She doesn't yet know about the gender pay gap, or under-representation, or the barriers like high childcare costs that make it so hard for so many women to work and pursue careers.

"My fervent hope is that she never will; that by the time she is a young woman she will have no need to know about any of these issues because they will have been consigned to history."

While I share Sturgeon's hope, I am not sure it will be realised by the time Harriet becomes an adult – the gender pay gap will take years to close, and under-representation in the British Parliament is not going to be solved within a generation because two of the main parties refuse to sign up to all-women shortlists.

David Cameron hasn't quite managed it – although I concede he has tried. Yet at a stroke, on Friday, Sturgeon solved the under-representation in the Scottish Cabinet by appointing women to 50 per cent of the roles. As they say, if you want a job doing properly, ask a busy woman.

Muzzled by success

I am currently reading the memoirs of Valérie Trierweiler, the former partner of French President François Hollande who was unceremoniously dumped by him when it emerged he had been having an affair with an actress. Her book, Thank You For This Moment – which she is publicising in the UK next week – tells a desperate tale of the status of the political wife, whose voice must remain on mute.

I have long thought Britain should follow the US and give an official role and speaking part to leaders' wives (or husbands), and this book reinforces this argument.

Opinion isn't a sackable offence

My colleagues Katy Guest and John Rentoul have today gone into the sorry saga over the resignation of Emily Thornberry, but I am compelled to think the affair has one (tiny) upside for Ed Miliband: it has distracted attention away from his on-air spat with Myleene Klass over mansion tax earlier in the week.

I share Klass's concerns that asset-rich, income-poor "little old ladies" will be punished unfairly, and that it sends the wrong message on aspiration. But what was disturbing was the petition, on, for Klass to lose her job as a Littlewoods model. has hosted some worthy petitions over the years, but this one, which has gained more than 7,000 signatures, was a chilling encroachment of an individual's free speech.

As long as someone does not incite violence, having an opinion about a political issue is not a hate crime for which the punishment is being gagged and losing one's job.

Alexander's great ambition

At the Press Gallery lunch last week, Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, refused to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he wanted to lead the Liberal Democrats. Yet Alexander kept on referring to "my party" when talking about the Lib Dems. A subconscious slip, or deliberate? He may be doggedly loyal to Clegg, but friends say once there is a vacancy he will definitely join the fight against the left-wing front-runner, Tim Farron.

Javid tries listening

How often have you spoken to your MP? Many voters may feel the need to see their MP at his or her surgery only if they have an urgent and serious case.

But this Wednesday, constituents in Bromsgrove can take part in a mass conference call with their MP, Sajid Javid. This "teleforum" is a first for a British MP but was used to great effect by Boris Johnson during his mayoral campaigns. Constituents can sign up to "Tell Sajid" at and leave a contact number, and they will be called at 7pm on Wednesday to ask questions.

Given that many think of Javid as a future Conservative leader, and that Johnson has already done this, I can imagine the voters of Maidenhead will get the chance to phone Theresa May any day soon.