Silencing MSPs will leave our politics poorer
The febrile row that surrounds the reform of the Gender Recognition Act has taken its first political casualty with the resignation of the high-profile Green MSP, Andy Wightman.
Wightman, a Lothian list MSP, sensationally quit the party on Friday accusing it of operating a culture of “intolerance” and censorship. In a letter to the co-leaders of the party, Patrick Harvie MSP and Lorna Slater, he criticised a lack of “open and mature dialogue” on the questions of sex and gender accusing party spokespeople of being “provocative, alienating and confrontational [on the subject] for many women and men”.
And this, from within a party that would be assumed to be more liberal, collegiate and open to debate than most, is damning.
But it is also just the latest salvo in what has become a bruising battle which goes way beyond the parameters of any proposed reform of the GRA and into esoteric questions about what even defines a woman.
And despite the clear nuances inherent within the wider debate about sex and gender, the adopted positions have been ridiculously dogmatic.
Wightman’s resignation follows an argument within the party over an amendment to the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill which sought to replace the word ‘gender’ with ‘sex’ regarding a sexual assault victim’s right to choose their forensic examiner.
The amendment passed by 113 votes to nine. All Lib Dem and Green MSPs votes against it, but in his resignation letter Wightman admits he only did so due to a threat of “complaints and disciplinary action leading to possible suspension, deselection or expulsion”.
He later told me in an extremely emotional interview that he was ashamed, felt he had humiliated himself, and that he should have voted for the amendment.
Wightman had already faced the wrath the party leadership for expressing some concerns about the lack of debate over the wider issues sparked by proposed changes to the GRA.
Last year he was reprimanded for simply attending a meeting at Edinburgh University on sex-based rights where a speaker, the feminist writer Julie Bindel, was allegedly attacked by a trans activist. Wightman later tweeted that he hoped she was fine and that no attacks on a woman were ok.
Reasonable maybe, but the revelation that he had been at the meeting attended by other MSPs, academics, and interested parties, sparked enough internal complaints to mean that he could face disciplinary action. He subsequently apologised for being there.
This matters. Not because it’s about one belligerent politician unable to any longer, in good faith, toe a party line, it matters because Wightman is considered one of the most able MSPs in the Scottish Parliament and informed debate matters. He has a record for speaking to power, to championing complex causes, and for applying forensic skills of scrutiny to the law. If even he is unable to persuade his party - the liberal Greens, for goodness sake - to loosen up on the rhetoric and listen, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
And when thoughtful politicians like Wightman feel they have no choice but to leave the party and the parliament because they are being silenced, then our politics and our approach to equalities will be the poorer for it.
We are losing some of our most thoughtful, inquisitorial and sometimes critical voices across all parties ahead of the election in May which poses the question, what will pass for reasoned debate in a parliament where there are so few independent minds and where the SNP majority looks increasingly likely?