LAST Saturday I spent an inspirational day at the SNP’s Women’s and Equalities Conference in Glasgow.

As National Women’s and Equalities Convener for the SNP, it was wonderful to be part of such a positive and progressive event with guest speakers from the SNP in Westminster and Holyrood, external organisations, party activists, our disabled members group, BAME and LGBTI communities coming together to share their experiences and vision for the future. This is only the second conference of its type and the only one to be held by any political party in Scotland. Its contribution to the debate on equality cannot be underestimated in our journey towards a truly representative and inclusive Scotland.

From a personal perspective and as the first BAME woman to be elected as an MP in Scotland, equality is at the heart of everything I believe in and I’m proud to be a member of a party so dedicated to its pursuit. So it will come as no surprise to hear that one area of equality close to my heart is BAME representation in public life. It was apt indeed then that MSP Humza Yousaf took to the stage at our conference to announce the creation of a scholarship in the name of the late, great SNP MSP Bashir Ahmad, the first Asian-Scot and non-white parliamentarian to sit in Holyrood. This new initiative will focus on encouraging more black, Asian and minority ethnic participation in politics in Scotland, providing political mentoring and internship opportunities and challenging barriers to involvement. I’m sure Bashir’s family and the Scottish BAME community will be delighted to have his name and legacy associated with such an important opportunity to hear their voices in Scottish politics.

Loading article content

It was, in fact, a day of firsts at this year’s conference, continuing the drive to establish new initiatives that challenge and change entrenched thinking and restricted opportunity. The founder of One in Five, Jamie Szymkowiak, with the new convener of the SNP’s Disabled Members Group, Morag Fulton, delivered an introduction to the party’s new Disabled Equality Training, to increase understanding of the difficulties faced by so many in our workforce.

Compare and contrast these positive new initiatives with those discussed at the tired and prosaic Tory party conference the week before, where Theresa May’s promises to deliver equality and rights through the free market echoed hollow through half-empty halls. The truth is that in Tory Britain, disabled persons, children and the elderly suffer at the thin end of austerity cuts, while the elite prosper at their expense – even the United Nations recently denounced the Tory Government for failing to protect disabled people. And despite having a woman as prime minister, Theresa May seems incapable of bringing such MPs as Philip Davies or Jacob Rees-Mogg to heel on their medieval attitudes towards the opposite sex. Pursuing equality and LGBTI rights is not at the top of the DUP’s to-do list and that’s putting it mildly. It’s not a good time to be in a minority community in present-day Britain.

As for the Scottish Conservatives, for all their attempts to paint their leader as separate from and rising above the collective hysteria in Westminster, the reality is far more troubling. Ruth Davidson’s refusal to take a moral stand on anything that elicits a difficult conversation with her MPs, MSPs and councillors continues to haunt her. It may be missing from the news headlines, but it’s not been a great few months for Ruth – down to third place in a recent poll, she has lost control over the racist, prejudiced and downright abusive sections of her party. From offensive comments directed at our First Minister by Ruth’s new councillors, one a former teacher now struck off the education register, to derogatory sectarian, racist and anti-gay bigotry; she is fighting a war on all fronts. The row over Douglas Ross’s “inflammatory rhetoric” on travellers in his constituency makes one reasonably question not just the calibre of the Scottish Tories, but their ability to do their elected job unclouded by deeply prejudiced views. And I haven’t even touched on the Scots Tory MP who didn’t bother to vote in the EU referendum as she wasn’t sure what to do! Ruth’s colleagues are hiding their bigotry and ineptitude in plain sight – even Spitting Image would struggle to find acceptable satire in any of this sorry tale.

Ruth Davidson’s bluster and Theresa May’s empty rhetoric is falling on deaf ears in Scotland where the SNP is making good on its promises. The devolved government’s vision for this country is a tolerant and inclusive one, with proper representation for our rich and diverse communities, both in parliament and at local government level, where equality is enshrined at the very core of our constitution.

More than ever, we need to challenge prejudice to protect essential human rights and move forward with our vision for a better future. As Bashir Ahmad said at his first party conference speech: “It’s not where we came from that matters, its where we’re going together.”