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Profile: Johann Lamont

ON a sweltering afternoon, the Scottish Labour Party's Glasgow HQ is teeming with activity, as if a film director had just hollered "action!".

Behind banks of desks an army of young party workers is clattering at keyboards and clutching phones. A handful are brainstorming in a corner, while others scurry along corridors, papers and folders in hand. With just weeks until the independence referendum, it would seem that every minute matters. The only calm figure in this hive is the queen bee herself. In an airy conference room, Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, looks cool and composed.

The 57-year-old former English schoolteacher and MSP for Glasgow Pollok is slim as a chive, having recently shed more than four stone. Dressed with understated chic, her blonde hair is glossy, her face unlined despite the past few, gruelling years.

Perhaps the only sign of her bruising profession is the well-oiled ease with which she talks. Then again, this may simply indicate that the subject under discussion is close to her heart, given a career devoted to campaigning for equal rights for women. Lamont's interest in politics emerged while she was still at school, when she wrote a short story that came third in a Daily Mirror competition. She smiles at the memory. "Basically, it's this story of a woman talking about the fact she's going to demand a pay rise. There's political references all the way through. And of course the punchline at the end is that the maid comes in, and it's the Queen."

Unusually, however, it is untitled women who are in a position of great power at the moment. As September 18 approaches, the key to the country's future lies in their ballot papers. Like deck chairs on a cruise ship, whichever way they slide will tip the scales. And, despite campaigners' best efforts, compared with men women still seem less sure how to vote, and more likely to say No.

Lamont, a linchpin of the Better Together camp, is presumably delighted, but can she also explain why that is? Speaking as if on Just A Minute, she launches in. "On Saturday I met at different doors two separate women, both with young families. One was nearly a Yes and one was nearly a No, but both were don't-knows.

"What struck me was the extent to which they were thinking about it. It wasn't an instinctive thing ... They were testing arguments with me, too. For the woman who was nearly a Yes voter, some of the arguments were around risk. What they weren't believing was the possibility that somebody would be arguing a case as reckless as I believe it to be."

Some would argue that the case for independence is far from reckless and that these women were right to remain unconvinced by the bogies Better Together drag out on the campaign trail to terrify them. Yet there is no denying the widespread mistrust and confusion among women. Part of this stems, reasonably enough, from innate suspicion of political promises, no matter who makes them.

Lamont understands this, especially when, she says, the Yes campaign is adamant that "with independence, everything will be better". Though not above delivering a crushing put-down herself, she exudes an air of mild impatience at her opponents' wiles.

"If somebody says to you, 'everything will be perfect', there's a scepticism that women have around that. But the other side of me is reluctant, as a feminist, to think that we define men and women in a way that makes it sound as if we're not as brave or as willing to take risks, because that implies there's something in women that's not as courageous.

"I'm not comfortable with that. The way in which the world has changed, women very often are leading that change. Whether that's as individuals, bravely going into the boardroom, or into high-powered jobs, or women taking on the arguments around abuse."

Lamont's accent only hints at Tiree, where her Gaelic-speaking parents came from. Yet although born in Glasgow, she spent much of her childhood on the island. Married to Archie Graham, deputy leader of Glasgow City Council, she has two teenage children, who joined their mother on stage in Perth at the Scottish Labour Party Conference in March. It was probably the only time Lamont has looked relaxed in front of the cameras, her usually starched demeanour melting as her family stepped on to the platform.

With that photo opportunity some accused her of trying to score a cheap political point against her childless opponents, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Even if that were so, it was a clever move, showing that the poker-faced politician was also a devoted, ordinary mother. Which, given the issues on which the referendum may be won or lost, is not insignificant.

Take childcare, which has been one of the most prominent electoral carrots dangled by the Yes campaign. Expressly designed to appeal to women, the naked opportunism of that idea was not the Yes camp's finest hour. Lamont was not impressed.

"The idea crudely that the SNP could say, 'Hmmm, we've got a problem with women, let's talk about childcare'. It doesn't matter if it's costed or not, it doesn't even seem to understand how childcare works ... It seems to think increasing childcare places will only benefit women who are working. But of course all those grannies and granddads, who disproportionately do childcare in Scotland compared to the rest of the United Kingdom, you just displace. So there's no economic increase."

As with politicians of every stripe, when Lamont's hackles are raised, there's no holding her back. "You look at my father's generation. Their job was to work, work long hours. So inevitably women were more likely to be at home. That's not the world we're living in now. Men are much more likely to want to be active parents. I'll meet taxi drivers who're always on a night shift and their wife on a day shift, or the other way around, to manage all that. Some of the way they spoke about the childcare thing didn't get that dimension."

When she speaks about her years as a junior minister at Holyrood, helping push through legislation, her concern for those in need is obvious. Lamont has a big heart, and despite the coolness of her public persona, which one suspects disguises a degree of shyness, her sympathy and compassion for others are winning. Recalling her classroom days, her expression brightens.

"Education is never really schools, teachers, jotters and books, it's wee human beings. The things they have to live with in their own heads before they even get to sit in front of a book was always the bit that interested me. The politics of looking at somebody's problem and trying to help them is a great privilege."

While her political career has sometimes been tough, she adds that it is not nearly as difficult as teaching. But surely even the unruliest class could not match the misery of her infamous STV debate with Nicola Sturgeon, an unedifying spectacle where each tried to land a knock-out blow, and shouted over the other's answers. Later described as "a stairheid rammie" and a case of "handbags at dawn", it has become a YouTube classic for those who enjoy blood sports.

Lamont squirms. "I thought it demeaned us both. It was horrible to be part of. At one level we were both damaged by it. And also - I said this to STV - the idea there were three male commentators sitting on the comfy couches commenting on how rubbish we were. They wouldn't have done that to men in the same way. The women sitting on the couch wouldn't have used the same language."

"It's that thing about stereotypes," she concludes wearily. "As Deputy Leader I once did FMQs with Nicola. One commentator said, 'I wouldn't want to go home to her with a broken pay packet'. At one level it was funny. They just had to find a way of describing what was quite an odd thing in politics, which was that the two leaders in this debate were both women."

Lamont says she can now tease Sturgeon about their debacle, which suggests there is a degree of theatre about all such encounters. In terms of the referendum debate, however, does she think Alex Salmond has been good for the campaign, from a woman voter's perspective, or has Sturgeon been drafted in to woo the female vote?

She shrugs. "I can only say that of the women who express a view to me about Alex Salmond, the view tends to be very strong. I don't think anybody doubts his intelligence, his capability. My own view is that this is something he's believed in all his life, and everything that is an explanation is actually a justification.

"I don't think there's ever been a point at which he's said, 'Actually, in an interdependent world, this is difficult to do.' Clearly he's passionate about an independent Scotland, which almost blinds him to what might be the consequences. My sense is that women react against the very bullish thing."

As for Sturgeon, Lamont thinks she has been pushed to the fore because she is a class act. "She's very competent. She's a good performer, and I think she gets some of the subtleties that have long abandoned Alex."

Has she been impressed by the way the campaign has been conducted? "I do think there's an element of slapping people down, going into a mode of saying, 'That's just not true'. For example, if Standard Life are saying they will look at relocating, you can't just wish all that away."

Didn't Standard Life make the same threat before the Devolution vote? But Lamont is on an unstoppable roll.

"I also think people are fed up with it, because the Scottish Government is adept at countering one report with another saying the opposite. They still can't answer the questions of currency or Europe, still can't explain how they're going to pay for it. But the problem with the debate is that asking the question becomes 'scaremongering'. Do women get more fed up with that? I don't know."

As for Lamont, she looks anything but fed up. Some pundits have even suggested she is in an enviable position. If the Union is upheld, she will be praised by her Westminster colleagues for preserving unity. If the country gains independence, so will she and her party. Either way, she might just emerge a winner. Whether that will prove true for the rest of Scotland's women is rather less easy to predict.

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