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Scotland's Future view of women was from the 1950s

IT was called a White Paper to bestow an air of solemnity.

It was unveiled by a male-female presenting duo given equal opportunity to have a say. And at its heart was a commitment to a "childcare revolution" that would leave Scottish women the envy of their sisters elsewhere.

From launch to follow-up, Scotland's Future was designed to appeal to wary voters in general and indie-sceptic women voters in particular.

So why did it come across as so patronising, so hopelessly dated in its view of women, that the document might as well have been coloured pink, wrapped in a bow and delivered by the Milk Tray Man?

Providing an answer to the question of what women want has been a pressing concern of the Yes camp for some time now.

Polls consistently show a gap between male and female support for independence.

The size of the gap varies from survey to survey. An Ipsos MORI poll in September reckoned it was 16%, with 24% of women ready to vote Yes compared to 40% of men. What is never in doubt is that there is a gap and it is not going away.

Finding out why this should be so, and what to do about it, has been high on the to-do list of the Yes camp. Undecided voters are an obvious target for both sides, and the "don't usually votes" could make a slight but crucial difference to the yes vote.

But it is women in general who are the real prize. If polls start to show that they are being persuaded in greater numbers to vote yes then a tipping point will not be far away.

Little wonder, then, that those drafting Scotland's Future should have seen as a magic bullet the plan to provide near full-time childcare for all three and four-year-olds by the end of the first independent Scottish Parliament.

This would free parents - for parents in this instance read mostly women - to go out to work. They, in turn, would pay more taxes into the pot and families would be better off (by £4600 for every child helped under the scheme).

Though costing £600 million, this would be paid for by defence savings, and in the long term the policy would more than pay for itself.

As if all of this was not reason enough to back the scheme (and by extension independence), there were the obvious benefits to children themselves, particularly those from poor backgrounds who fight a losing battle from birth to keep pace with youngsters from wealthier, healthier homes.

Closing this gap - Scotland's real shame if ever there was one - should be a fundamental goal of every Scottish Government of whatever hue.

In short, the childcare plan should have made child's play of boosting support for independence among women. What, then, is the problem?

It is not the policy itself. As has been argued, more women in work means more wealth for all, and better pre-school provision will make a healthy start in closing the country's poverty gap.

It is the way in which the policy is to be implemented, and what it says about the strategists' view of women and what matters to them, that are the bugbears here. Taken together, they turn what was meant to be a vote-winning asset into a support-draining liability.

The implementation glitch should have been obvious to even the wonkiest of policy wonks. How long did they assume it would be before someone pointed out that the Scottish Government already has the powers and means to implement the policy now? After all, it is already close to delivering on its 2007 election pledge to provide 600 hours of free nursery care for three and four-year-olds.

According to the Scottish Government, boosting this to 1140 hours a year now would mean all those lovely extra taxes raised from having more women in the workforce would go straight into Westminster's pocket and become lost, never, presumably, to be seen again. Never mind the closer to home boost to the incomes of Scottish families or the young lives changed. Scotland will have to wait, and vote yes, before we can get this particular goodie. So universal pre-school care is a wonderful idea, but it is not so wonderful that it will be implemented without delay. Postponement is far from the kind of approach that a party claiming to have an eye on Scotland's future should be taking. It looks petty and short-sighted. It makes a sensible policy that is required now look like a naked bribe. The cost of independence indeed.

In pushing childcare as a game-changing idea, those behind the launch of Scotland's Future show zero appreciation of the basic political tactic of never promising anything you can already deliver. Nor do they seem aware of how Scotland's population is changing. Between now and 2035, the number of two adults, no children households is set to increase, while the number of two adult households with children will fall. Perhaps the most significant rise outlined in the Household Projections for Scotland report is in the number of those living alone, which is set to increase from 863,000 (37%) to 1.29 million (45%) by 2035.

It is one thing to be clueless about population changes, quite another to fundamentally misunderstand what matters most to Scottish women voters. Leave aside the fact that not all women are mothers, or want to be mothers. Ignore the notion that not all mothers would wish to go out to work while their children are of a pre-school age. While you are it, kick into the long grass the question of where all the new jobs are going to come from before growth arrives (or will growth, unlike near full-time nursery care, be roaring ahead before independence?). All of these irritations are but nothing when compared to treating women voters as if they are a breed apart.

The Yes camp is hardly alone in trying to answer Freud's eternal question. The Conservative party at a UK level is equally fretful, having seen its support among women voters heading southwards in the last 15 years. Yet as far as the independence vote goes there is no mystery here, no riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. For all those highly-paid strategists out there, here is a world exclusive. What women want from politics is the same as what men want: clear answers to the questions that concern them, and no assumptions about what those concerns might be. For the Scottish Government to push the childcare plan was to assume that this was what matters most to women - more than the economy, citizenship, pensions, defence, security and the rest. What a patronising message to send to all the young women who will be voting for the first time in this referendum.

At a time when Scotland, with two women leading mainstream parties and another a deputy leader, was beginning to feel like a more politically enlightened place, the childcare move turned the calendar back to the 1950s. Such pats on the head belong in Scotland's past, not its future.

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Families

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