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by Mandy Rhodes
22 May 2023
Nicola Sturgeon is completely lacking in self-awareness when she complains of polarised debate

Nicola Sturgeon on the backbenches at Holyrood with former Deputy First Minister John Swinney | Credit: Alamy

Nicola Sturgeon is completely lacking in self-awareness when she complains of polarised debate

When a narcissist reframes reality to help create a false narrative that focuses attention back onto them, it’s called self-delusion. And yet, ironically, there was something rather telling about the muted reaction last week to Nicola Sturgeon’s first major policy intervention since she left the office of first minister where, basically, she told everyone else to calm down and “take a breath”. 

Aside from the obvious chutzpah at the sheer audacity of Sturgeon, of all people, lamenting just how polarised political debate had become when many would see her as the chief protagonist, her op-ed piece in The Guardian newspaper was largely ignored.

But the fact that she chose to re-enter the political fray on the controversial proposals to introduce judge-only trials for rape, and so basically pitched herself against the entire legal profession that almost, wholesale, backs jury trials, lacked even a modicum of self-awareness given her current predicament.

Indeed, the president of the Faculty of Advocates’ Criminal Bar Association said her intervention had echoes of Trump, suggesting that Sturgeon had used the newspaper column to “tar dissenting voices” rather than engage with their views. [Now, where have we heard that before?]

And on the substantive issue for that column, of her being “struck by the polarisation in politics”, if she really needs to understand how we got to this place, then she simply needs look in the mirror.

Almost every politician, including her successor, talks of the highly toxic environment that politics is operating in right now and whatever way you look at it, it can be traced back to Sturgeon’s (mis)handling of the debate that swirled around the Gender Recognition Reform Bill and how people were forced to pick sides.

The GRRB, no matter how well intentioned, ignored the sensitivities, the nuances, and the necessity of hard-won women’s rights being upheld, and the way issues of equality can butt up against each other with unintended consequences. No accommodation was made for any of those factors. And for those reasons alone, it is currently blocked by the UK Government and will be tested in court.

Interestingly, but depressingly, amid the furore Sturgeon rarely spoke on the proposed GRR legislation, never debated it, never exposed herself to being questioned on the details of it, but was clearly the architect of it. And she led the charge on the vilification of its critics. Not once did she intervene, even when one of her own MPs, Joanna Cherry, was getting rape threats. And that should never be forgiven.

Last week when Sturgeon was presented with the ‘celebrity ally’ award at a glittering LGBTQIA awards ceremony in London, in recognition of her work around trans inclusivity, she repeated her mantra, to rapturous applause, that: “My rights as a woman are not diminished in any way, shape or form by the enhancement of rights of trans men and women”.

It’s a meaningless phrase that she has repeated endlessly, even as the evidence has mounted of how self-ID for transgender people has real and adverse consequences for women’s safety.

And yet just months before, when eventually confronted with the case of Isla Bryson, a rapist who self-identified as a woman and who was initially sent to a women’s jail, she was unable to talk her way out of the obvious inconsistency in her position on self ID – the main tenet of the GRRB. 

Similarly, in taking the GRRB through parliament, the now deputy first minister, Shona Robison, was so famously quoted as saying that there was no evidence that predatory and abusive men ever had to pretend to be anything else to abuse women. As I write, a man who identifies as a woman has pled guilty to abducting and sexually assaulting a young girl while dressed as a woman. We have yet to be told where he will be housed.

The court was told that Andrew Miller identifies as transgender and is in the process of transitioning to female. He was not known to his victim before he abducted her.

At the time of his arrest, he was presenting as Amy George but confirmed he wished to be addressed as Miller, using ‘he’ pronouns for “simplicity”. How very gallant of him! The victims of Isla Bryson were not afforded such grace when they had to hear his penis described as ‘her’s’ in court.

These are complex and highly charged issues. And yet Sturgeon approached the legitimate question of improving the lives of trans people in the same way that she has argued for juryless trials for rape: identifies an issue, comes up with a simple, but unevidenced fix; picks a side; lobs in some passive aggressive comments; steamrollers on; and then wonders why it becomes so polarised.

I don’t know what the answer is to increasing the number of convictions for rape. It is by its nature a crime that is difficult to prosecute by normal standards of evidence. It is almost always likely to be a case of ‘he says’, ‘she says’. But if juryless trials are seen as some sort of panacea to solving the abhorrent crime of rape and the harm it engenders, then it should never be forgotten that it isn’t in court where the major failure begins.

As our front cover so starkly illustrates, of the 2,298 reported rapes in Scotland, just a tiny fraction actually end in court, which is why the focus on juryless trials should not be seen in isolation of the wider problems and context. 

Victims of rape deserve far more than getting caught in yet another toxic row that polarises the parliament, removes their agency, and forgets who the real victims are.

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