WHEN Jo Swinson was a teenager, studying at Douglas Academy in Milngavie, she was awarded the Senior Dux prize for achievement, and was given a trophy plus a book of her choice. What she opted for, as she describes in her book Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen, was a popular title by Kate White, a journalist who would later go on to edit Cosmopolitan. It was called Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do.

Swinson croons her enthusiasm when I mention the book. Recently, she tells me, she gave it a mention in a World Book Day article and as a result the author got in touch with her. "I’m just so over the moon about this,” says Swinson. “I got this email from her last week, out of the blue, saying I’m so touched that this book made such an impact. She said she’d like to meet up for a coffee. I’m so beside myself with excitement that I’ll have to try not to be a dreadful fan girl.”

Gutsy is certainly a word that fits Swinson, currently deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for East Dunbartonshire. She's not afraid to upset people. It’s an attitude which was there, for instance, when she turned the tables on Jon Humphrys in a recent interview, asking him if he had apologised to the BBC reporter, Carrie Gracie, for joking about her campaign for equal pay in the BBC. It was also there, when, in 2005 and first elected to Westminster at 25 years old, then – as Mhairi Black is now – the youngest MP, she posed her first question to PM Tony Blair, asking if it was time "to say goodbye to the Punch and Judy style of PMQs”.

That was in the days long before #MeToo. Did she experience much harassment, back then? Not, in the parliament, she says, though she did in other places, mainly the street. Recently she revealed that she had what she regards as a "close escape" from possible rape by a fellow student at London School of Economics.


“Before #MeToo I would have previously said I didn’t experience sexism at Westminster. But, I think with hindsight that’s not true. There was a patronising sexism sometimes, an excess of chivalry, little stuff. Men would apologise for swearing in your company. It’s just one of those things that reminds you that they see you as very different.”

One of the things that helped her grow in confidence, she recalls, was her time as Minister for Women and Equalities in the coalition government. At the time, she says, she felt, because she was "living the brief" she knew as much if not more than the most in the Commons about those issues.

“One day this guy stood up and asked a question and asked it in the most confident and overly eloquent way. I knew that what he was saying, his point, was absolute nonsense," she says. "The recent research didn’t back it up at all. It really made an impact on me because I realised all these times when the men look so confident when they’re talking about stuff in parliament, often it’s just nonsense.”

Swinson was, she recalls, the good girl type at school, and still hasn’t managed to throw that off entirely. “I still think it’s in me. I sort of find myself fighting with it a little bit, which I think is just a sign of how deeply ingrained it is. Because it is there in the way we bring up little girls.” Just last month, she was gripped by that “good girl”, when, on the centenary of the suffrage act, she decided she wanted to do a piece of film at the broom cupboard at Westminster where suffragette Emily Davison spent the night. “But the BBC had asked to do it and they’d been refused. So I thought, ‘Am I going to get into trouble? Then I thought, ‘Look for heaven’s sake, we’re talking about 100 years since the suffragettes. If there’s a day that you can break rules then it’s that day.”

Her book, Equal Power, which was published last year, has a feel of the swot, as she refers to her childhood self, and the “good girl” to it. Essentially a handbook for anyone keen to push change, it’s thorough, extensive in its research and so packed with facts it defies questioning. But at the same time, there’s plenty of the “gutsy” girl in it, the bad girl who is willing to speak up even if it riles some. It’s typical Swinson.

She was hardly being the good girl, I say, on the the occasion when recently she wrote a controversial piece advocating that Margaret Thatcher deserves a statue in Parliament Square in London. She must have known that would cause the kind of outrage it did. “The thing is,” she says. “I believe it. I think that women should be recognised for their achievements, even when we don’t agree with them. Even when we vehemently disagree with them. I recognise there is absolutely an issue with what Margaret Thatcher did, and I said that in my article in my own words, but people have twisted it slightly to suggest I’m somehow a fan of hers.”

She points out that there is even a gendered element to the vitriol directed against Thatcher. “I’ve just finished reading Hilary Clinton’s book. Different end of the political spectrum, but the vitriol directed at Hillary Clinton was every bit as intense.”

It just so happens that we are speaking on International Women’s Day, which seems appropriate. Particularly since, as Swinson observes, this year’s International Women’s Day has had, coming after a year of women's rage, a great deal of energy behind it. People now seem, I say, to be paying far more attention to the causes she espouses. When, as junior minister for women and equalities, she announced her body-image campaign, a Guardian journalist questioned whether this was too “fuzzy" an issue. Now however her interests seem entirely in keeping with the mood of the times.

“You’ve obviously had the campaigns like #MeToo and TimesUp,” says Swinson, “and it’s also about a month after the fabulous centenary celebrations of some women first getting the right to vote. There is energy to this movement. The challenge for all of us is to harness that energy and turn it into change because that’s what we want to see”.

A read of Equal Power makes it apparent that Swinson is a fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. She read it, she recalls, when she was on maternity leave, following the birth of her son, Andrew. “My favourite bit,” she says, “is the story she tells in which she’s on the way to some work conference and she’s got to take her kids with her and she’s sitting on this plane with all these senior colleagues and then she looks at her child’s hair and she realises, to her horror, they’ve got nits.”

Since then, Swinson says, she’s had a few of her own busy career mum-meets-childcare challenge disasters. One, she says, particularly stands out for her. “There was the time when Andrew was violently sick as we landed, we were commuting between Glasgow and London when he was a very small baby. And he just projectile vomited all over me, all over the baby carrier, all over him. And I had a spare change of clothes for him, but I didn’t have a spare dress for me. I remember getting on to the train after that just stinking of sick.”

Swinson hasn’t always, Sandberg-style, leant in. Though, as she points out, nor did Sandberg always follow the practice. “She actually talks about a pregnancy where she didn’t lean in because she decided that that wasn’t the right thing for her at that stage – she wanted to make a sideways move and focus on her new child.”

In fact Swinson’s "lean out" moment came last year when she was favourite for leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, but dropped out of the race. Some might say, she let down the feminist cause. Does she still think she made the right decision?

“I looked at it through the lens of every different part of my life and in none of it did it makes sense. And the bottom line is that I didn’t want to do it. It sounds very simple but I’ve learned to trust my gut instinct. Doing something like that because other people want you to is not right. The level of responsibility for leading a political party is absolutely massive.”

That said, she says, she does not rule it out for the future. “I’m 38 years old. I genuinely don’t feel like I’m in any rush. I’m still one of the younger MPs in parliament. And you know there’s plenty on my plate, working as deputy leader with Vince Cable. He's a great man to work with and I’m very involved in the decision making about the future strategy.”

Now pregnant with her second child with husband and former Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames, Swinson still does that commute between Glasgow and London. Her son is four, so she says it’s easier. It also helps, she says, that her parents look after Andrew when she’s back in Scotland. Plus there are the occasional sleepovers for him with her sister, who is a forensic scientist, and his cousins.

She recalls that when she and her husband both lost their parliamentary seats back in 2015, they decided that the logistics of being a two-MP family that had to travel on a weekly basis was not something they were ever going to repeat. “We said, 'Right we are not reinventing, whatever we do, the London-Glasgow-Wiltshire triangle'.” Swinson won her seat back from the SNP last year, but Hames currently works for an international charity.

Since she was the minister that introduced shared parental leave, she says, she and her husband will certainly be taking advantage of it. “Of course we’ll share leave. Obviously I’ll be thinking through very carefully how to make sure my constituents get a good service throughout. But also I recognise a baby is only a newborn once and it’s important to get time with their parents in those very early months.”

With Swinson, politics and the personal are intertwined. Many of the changes she has pushed for are now being lived out in her own life. She campaigned for a House of Commons nursery, long before she had children and now makes full use of it. She also pushed for the ban on taking babies into the voting lobby to be lifted. Soon after, it was her husband, Hames, not Swinson who became the first person to carry six-month-old Andrew in with him as he made his vote.

That she had a son, she says, has impacted on her view of the world. “I remember when he was born,” she says, “I sort of imagined that if I’d had a daughter I would have had an idea of how to guide a young woman through childhood, through puberty, the kind of challenges she would face. And I suddenly realised, thinking about my son’s life, I don’t know how to navigate those issues as a young man.”

For instance, she says, that as a woman she doesn’t really know what it’s like to feel pressure not to talk about your emotions. “Even now my son will say sometimes, if he's hurt himself, ‘I’m not crying’. And I’ll be really sort of, ‘It’s okay to cry. Mummy cries. Daddy cries. Everybody cries when they’re upset or hurt.’”

She’s keen, too, to dispel the myth of the hapless dad. “There’s quite an interesting mirror to what’s happening with women in the workplace going on. So in the same way that a woman stands up at a work conference and will be intrinsically be viewed as less competent than a man standing up even saying the same words. The same thing applies in the domestic sphere because people just assume that men are less competent at parenting and don’t know what they’re doing. I think we’re really having to fight for men’s acceptance in that role.”

Equal Power is dedicated to Swinson’s parents, her primary school teacher mother, and father who worked at the Scottish Development Agency. “I really do believe that I owe them a lot for raising me in a way that was very much the world is your oyster. You can do whatever you want to do.” Her childhood, she observes, was a mix of the stereotypically female, ballet classes, and, perhaps more masculine, the debating society. “My grandfather always said to me I think you’ll be in politics one day. I liked arguing. There was never any sort of thought that because I was a girl I couldn’t do public speaking. Quite the opposite.”

That grandfather, she observes, wasn’t a Liberal Democrat. He voted Conservative until 2005, when he switched to vote for his granddaughter. “He actually said that he was convinced by Charles Kennedy anyway,” she says. Her father, she recalls, leafleted for the SDP-Liberal alliance, and his side of the family, which came from London, were Labour supporters.

Swinson is quick to acknowledge the advantages of her own upbringing, which gave her the confidence to go on to study at London School of Economics and later stand for election. She keenly checks her privilege. “I’m aware,” she says, “I grew up in a middle-class area, had an excellent education. I’m white, I’m straight. All of these things which just make life that little bit simpler for me in lots of ways that I can’t even see.”

Her way of looking at the world is deliberately inclusive, and she frequently acknowledges different groups, particularly trans people. She calls for a movement for change that embraces everyone. “Women, men, people who identify as neither, working together to create a more equal world.”

Many feminists, I remark, are not so inclusive. She tells me that often when she thinks about how she should approach other groups, who don’t have her experience of the world, she thinks of how she feels that often men don’t appreciate sexual harassment because they don’t know what the experience of it is like for women. “Though,” she adds, “some men do.”

“I think there’s a level of humility that we need with regard to all these issues. I think on both sides of these movements we need people who have got privilege to be prepared to listen and to try to understand when they are getting it wrong.”

This means for her that we have to acknowledge that there are things we don’t appreciate enough about other people’s experiences. “I think that is sometimes difficult in our very divided social media age. It’s that basic issue of listening to other people’s experiences, recognising that people are individuals. I’m not going to suggest for a minute that I understand trans people as fully as I would like to. But I can get that there’s stuff that I don’t ‘get’.”

Jo Swinson will be speaking at Aye Write on March 24 at 4.45pm