restricted access Gender and politics in the devolved assemblies
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Gender and politics in the devolved assemblies

Is a new, more woman-friendly, politics developing in the devolved institutions?

Women's under-representation in political institutions continues to be a problem that does not diminish significantly over time. Some gains have been made within Britain in the last decade or so, most notably in the devolved institutions of the UK. The National Assembly for Wales now boasts a proportion of 40 per cent women members, and in the Scottish Parliament women hold 35 per cent of the seats. However, the representation of women in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons still lags behind, at 19 and 23 per cent respectively.

Furthermore, it is now widely recognised that the achievement of a greater numerical representation of women (or any other under-represented group) in an institution is not enough on its own to improve the position of the group: the progress and influence of such a group is also dependent upon the existence of 'critical actors' within the group, and on their ability to perform 'critical acts'. If under-represented groups are to become influential members of an institution, they need to participate in a way that enables them to perform these critical acts.

One way of investigating the progress or otherwise made by women within British political institutions is to focus on the kinds of language that are used in debates, both at Westminster and in the devolved institutions; examining these [End Page 81] more closely can give insights into the ways in which women and men politicians participate in political discourse. And it may also contribute to a more fruitful discussion about the necessary conditions, procedures and conventions that could lead to more egalitarian political institutions, and encourage the equal participation of their members.

Gender, language and politics

The House of Commons at Westminster is often described as the archetypal parliament: it has been used as a blueprint for the proceedings - and in some cases the physical layout - of parliaments in a number of different parts of the world, while even more legislatures have adopted some aspects of the 'Westminster System'. Nevertheless, it is perhaps surprising that in the blank canvas offered to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for the construction of new institutions after the devolution Acts in 1998, they also chose to emulate Westminster in most key respects. Thus, all the new devolved institutions took the Westminster Standing Orders as a starting point, and retained most of the Westminster speech events - such as Prime Minister's Question Time - although they did to a certain extent modify them to incorporate what were viewed as more egalitarian measures, such as timed speeches for members in debates.

The influence and status of the Westminster parliament make it an inevitable comparator when it comes to describing the devolved institutions. And it is also a key focus for any investigation into gender, language and interaction in political institutions, given that it is typically described as a 'masculine', adversarial forum, and one in which women find it hard to participate.

Many linguistic studies of political language have investigated the rhetoric of political speeches, and their content, but it is also possible to investigate the ways in which politicians take, hold and yield speaking turns on the debate floor. The ability to take up the discursive space in a political arena can be viewed as one of the ways in which politicians can gain power in an institution and perform critical acts. Although strict debate rules exist in the House of Commons, as in other institutions, in order to permit the fair turn-taking mechanism of the debate floor, such rules often represent an ideal rather than actual practice: the ideal is rarely achieved because in most institutions there is a set of informal and 'illegal' practices [End Page 82] that have gradually evolved as an integral part of its communicative norms. Thus illegal contributions, such as speaking out of turn from a sedentary position and 'barracking' other members, are practices that have, over time, become a feature of House of Commons debates. The Speaker may on some occasions intervene to enforce the rules, but there is some...