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If the SNP had the courage of its convictions, it would've allowed a free vote on gender reform

Nicola Sturgeon attends Pride in Glasgow | Credit: Alamy

If the SNP had the courage of its convictions, it would've allowed a free vote on gender reform

The unpredictability of politics, and what can knock governments and their leaders off course, was best described by the late prime minister Harold Macmillan as “events, dear boy, events”. While the accuracy of the quote and what it actually referred to may be disputed, the sentiment stands, and the first minister would be wise to think on.

The rebellion by nine of her MSPs, including a respected serving minister who resigned under the curiously flexible terms of ‘collective responsibility’, along with a longstanding MSP and former cabinet secretary, the son of Madame Ecosse, no less, who all refused to be whipped into voting for a bill they could not in all conscience support, was such an event. 

A zealotry for independence at any cost is priced into any disagreement within the SNP and is the balm that is applied to soothe minor discontent and restore calm. Independence supporters, politicians included, frequently hold their noses, put their principles to one side, and back things they may disagree with, simply because their eyes are focused on that bigger prize.

But the significance of the rebellion should not be underestimated in terms of what it says about Nicola Sturgeon’s style of leadership, her relationship with ministers – never mind backbenchers – and whether this is just the beginning of an unravelling of the SNP’s iron grip on power. 

Make no mistake, the numbers may yet feel small, but this could yet be a seminal moment not just in the career of the FM, but also in the history of the SNP and the journey to independence. 

It also speaks to a much wider malaise and reflects on the parliament, more generally, when legislators openly acknowledge that there are fundamental flaws to a bill, including the one that is seemingly insurmountable in terms of the powers of a devolved legislator with regards to the terms of the Equality Act which is reserved, and yet, despite that, they are willing, barring a few notable exceptions, to vote for it in the clear knowledge that it could well end up in court. 

MSPs can’t just abdicate responsibility for good law and place the onus on outside agencies or individuals to then take up the cudgels and challenge their poor decisions. That’s not how our democracy should work. Our parliament must surely be more than just a talking shop where debate has shrunk to little more than expressions of one’s own experience of trauma or an opportunity for self-congratulatory speeches and mutual adoration. 

Where is the challenge, the robust scrutiny? MSPs aren’t commentators, or bystanders. They are elected to be our representatives, to lead us and to make good law that protects and upholds all that we perceive to be right and just. That is their fundamental duty and not one to be farmed out.

Yet, at the stage one debate on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act, what was striking was that despite all the toxicity this bill has engendered, absolutely no one in the Scottish Parliament disagreed on the principle that reform is needed. That should be celebrated. What a consensual foundation for building on to make for good policy and effective law!

But what was equally clear was those fundamental issues that have existed from the start, around unintended legal consequences, of women’s safety, and the wider child protection issues around the lowering of age at which someone could apply for a gender recognition certificate and, effectively, legally change their sex in the eyes of the law, remain a problem for many. These should have been resolved before we ever got to this stage.

The fact is that, despite the consultations, delays, an election, and a detail-light manifesto that spoke of ‘reform’, coupled with the single but repeated and unevidenced assertion by the FM that there is no threat to women and girls, this SNP government has singularly failed to address in any detail its critics. 

And if the Scottish Government believed its own rhetoric, that the move to self-ID for trans people was simply an administrative change that would affect only trans people, then surely now they must see that they have seriously misjudged the self-harm that their naivety, and the vacuum they have created, has inflicted.

The significance of the rebellion should not be underestimated in terms of what it says about Nicola Sturgeon’s style of leadership and whether this is just the beginning of an unravelling of the SNP’s iron grip on power

Prior to last year’s election, more than half of Sturgeon’s ministerial team privately admitted to me that the proposed reforms were a mess and unlikely to stand up to legal challenge, never mind get through the committees [on that they underestimated the power of group think].

One told me the hope was the pandemic would overtake events and any bill would, at the very least, be kicked into the long grass. And for many of them, retirement from frontline politics was the reprieve that excused them from having to wrestle with their conscience and avoid giving in to cowardice.

And when the first minister chose, on the eve of last year’s budget, coincidentally on the grim anniversary of the first case of Covid to be identified in Scotland, a pandemic which by then had impacted every household in Scotland, upended livelihoods, cut lives short, and put the NHS under unprecedented strain, to speak directly to young activists threatening to leave the party over alleged transphobia, rather than focus her energies on the £50bn that her finance secretary was about to allocate to public services for the good of all, she sent out a clear message about where her priorities lay, and who and what she was willing to sacrifice, in newspaper headlines alone, in pursuit of a gender-reform agenda that, frankly, she either didn’t properly understand or whose consequences she chose to ignore.

The vote at stage one should, of course, have been a free vote but the SNP did not have the courage of its convictions. There were nine rebels this time, but I have rarely heard so much disquiet since, only fuelled by the first minister’s discourteous and disingenuous response to the resignation of her community safety minister, which publicly exposed a brittleness seldom seen outside the confines of her own private domain.

Sometimes, it is you that must bend with the arc of history and the first minister might care to reflect on her own words when, as deputy SNP leader in 2006 when Malcolm Chisholm resigned from the Labour government on a point of principle over Trident, she said: “Only two weeks ago, Mr McConnell told all MSPs to act with their conscience and now it appears that he cannot stand to have anyone with integrity in his own Cabinet.”

As Professor James Mitchell observes in later pages of this publication, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

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