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Nicola Sturgeon is starting to look like the SNP's independence albatross

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon answers questions during a press conference at St Andrews House | Credit: Alamy

Nicola Sturgeon is starting to look like the SNP's independence albatross

Politics comes at you fast these days. But even a week is proving too long to keep track of all that is befalling Scotland’s first minister as she increasingly becomes more of a liability than an asset to the independence cause.

For weeks now, at three FMQs, and at several of her own self-aggrandising media briefings, the focus on the FM has not been on what her government is doing to improve Scotland but on a relentless and fruitless attempt to get the first feminist Sturgeon to call a rapist what he is – a man. 

While this may seem a sideshow for some, and clear frippery and irritation to her, it is causing irreparable damage to brand Sturgeon, and by dint of her stranglehold on power, to her party, to independence, and to Scotland.

It has been painful to watch the unraveling of Sturgeon. She has dominated our politics for decades. She is viewed as one of the most accomplished politicians of her generation. A clear and empathetic orator. A rabid campaigner. A leader with a common touch who has been able to feel the pulse of the country and act.

But when her rhetoric of “trans women are women” is confronted with the reality of a convicted rapist who, in the time it took to get him to court for trial, had self-identified as a woman, then her ability to communicate on what she has championed as a flagship policy, and another Scottish first, has crumpled.

She has no argument because there is none. If the first minister believes all trans women are women, then why would a trans woman like Isla Bryson not be placed in a women’s prison? If not all trans women are women, then how do we tell the good from the bad? And if not all trans women are women, then weren’t women’s concerns about male-bodied people getting access to their single-sex spaces valid? 

And if not all trans women are women, then why were Isla Bryson’s victims made to endure hearing him referred to as “she” in court and the crime that he had committed against them described as being done by “her penis”?

If she were any other minister, the men in grey kilts would be knocking on the Bute House door. But Sturgeon is a law unto herself, a one-woman government and leader of the Nicola Sturgeon Party.

In the normal world, this is an absurdity. But in Sturgeon’s closeted world, where it’s her way or the highway, no one contradicts or questions her view, or where no opposing opinions may be freely voiced or debated, the conundrum she is now in is all her own making, and while she doesn’t have the answers, she is solely answerable for it all.

If Sturgeon says that Isla Bryson – who has been convicted of raping two women – is female, then she looks ridiculous. If she says Isla Bryson is a man, then the idiocy inherent in her flagship policy on gender recognition reform that allows for self-identification of any man to identify as a woman and be afforded the same legal rights and recognition, is exposed, and her own credibility is demolished.

In the end, it was a journalist’s simple question: “Are all trans women, women?” Given she has unthinkingly repeated that divisive slogan for years, this should have been easy. 

“Trans women are women” has been the mantra deliberately adopted by trans activists as a strategy to shut critics down. It is a statement of opinion masking as fact. It’s a test. And if you don’t automatically repeat it, or question its veracity, or even mention biology, then you’re a transphobe, and your views are invalid. On that the first minister has concurred. And here she was, a self-avowed trans ally, stalling at the first hurdle. 

She tried to stick to the line. “Trans women are women but…” 

Funny how that ‘but’ would normally be interpreted as evidence of bigotry in others and yet it is in the ‘but’ that reality and potentially compromise lies. We could all feel her discomfort as she struggled to acknowledge the nuance and mess of what it can mean to be human and where rights butt up against each other. It all hung heavy in the ‘but’.

However, Sturgeon didn’t question her own judgement. Instead, she chose another path. And later in the week, despite the hardly noticeable Freudian slip when she started to call Bryson “her” during another media outing, she quickly composed herself and referred to him simply as “the rapist”, leaving the trapdoor for others in her ministerial team to fall into.

She is now damaging them all. So what remains in the government’s agenda that Sturgeon can use to deflect from this self-harm?

From an abortive approach to a National Care Service, to the inevitable scandal engulfing the Deposit Return Scheme, to the inability to dual the A9, to the parlous state of the NHS, the broken promises around, ironically, The Promise, to the state of education, from dodgy ferry contracts to renewable energy giveaways, to failed climate change targets, and the looming crisis in local government, there are no good news stories for the Scottish Government.

And at the centre of it all is Sturgeon. Her priorities are not the country’s. Her personal ratings, like support for independence, are plummeting. And on the two flanks that she vociferously champions – gender reforms and the de facto referendum – she is chipping away at even more support. If she were any other minister, the men in grey kilts would be knocking on the Bute House door. But Sturgeon is a law unto herself, a one-woman government and leader of the Nicola Sturgeon Party.

Writing on social media, Joanna Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South West, and a long-time critic of gender self-ID, said it is time for the SNP to “sort this mess out before it does any more damage to the reputation of our party, parliament and the cause of Scotland’s independence”.

Jim Sillars, a former SNP deputy leader, described the gender reforms as Sturgeon’s “poll tax”. And Alex Salmond accused his former protégé of setting the independence movement backwards.

For the first time, commentators aren’t just asking how long she has left; they are also being taken seriously.

Alister Jack said he would apply his “duck test” to judge whether Scotland had an appetite for another referendum. He said: “If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck and waddles like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Strangely put, maybe, but Nicola Sturgeon is starting to look like the SNP’s independence albatross and the Secretary of State might just see the value in taking out two birds with one stone.

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