Taking a lead
On the day Britain passed that grotesque landmark of more than 100,000 deaths since this pandemic began, Nicola Sturgeon took to Twitter with an extraordinary intervention – a video statement about accusations of transphobia within the SNP.
Acknowledging that she has little time for anything other than tackling COVID-19 these days, the First Minister gave what she described as a “heartfelt” but “unscripted” statement, responding to news that the SNP was seeing an exodus of younger members citing transphobia as the cause.
She said that on some days, “silence was not an option”.
“No doubt others will accuse me of being woke. I don’t care,” she said. “Sometimes, particularly as a leader, it’s vital to speak up for what is right, and against injustice. That is why I am posting this message and I am grateful to you for listening.”
For the uninitiated, her statement seemed shocking. Sensational even. What had provoked such a seemingly urgent and necessary public response to something so particular as the inner workings of her own party?
Well, for those that have been keeping up, it was the culmination of years of increasingly febrile discourse stemming from, but not exclusively about, plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).
Years in which Sturgeon has, until now, said very little about the heat and fury inside her party – and out – generated by the clear mishandling of proposed reforms to the GRA, and which her leadership has done so little to quench.
Sturgeon is a great communicator. The fact that she remains so high in the polls as a result of her pandemic messaging, despite such a heavy death toll among Scots, attests to that.
And her loyal ministerial team and associated coterie were quick to retweet her video address, applauding her leadership in addressing such levels of perceived bigotry within SNP ranks.
‘This is what leadership looks like,’ was the common refrain.
But it is precisely because of the lack of leadership on this issue that now natural allies are tearing strips off each other, young people no longer feel safe within a party that has put equality at its heart, and some women – feminists to their core – have felt abandoned while exposed to abject misogyny, rooted in erroneous slurs, for simply raising questions emanating from this wider debate.
Sturgeon, regardless of the plaudits, said nothing in last week’s blue-lit communiqué that brought little further clarity of thought or action. But she did say it well.
So, where to start?
Firstly, history is being rewritten. And that is a dangerous thing.
Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, while welcoming Sturgeon’s statement, said that five years ago, all parties in Scotland made promises to trans and non-binary people and that these had been broken.
But no specific promises were made. And that’s where the devilish detail lies.
An examination of the 2016 election pledges reveals that all parties – bar the Tories – made the same nebulous gesture to trans people by promising, in the loosest possible terms, to reform the GRA. None of the parties gave more detail than that.
Indeed, the pledges were so broad that most candidates then had not even registered what this could mean. The Greens’ policy was a generous, ‘we believe everyone should be treated the same’.
Who wouldn’t buy into that?
Five years on and two consultations later, no one is any clearer and legislation no nearer. A vacuum has been created in the space where political process should have been, and where legislative changes should have been proposed, debated, reframed, legally tested, and enacted.
Instead, the space has been filled with misinformation, slogans and a hateful discourse where the self-identification of trans people has become a totem for what reform always meant and anyone questioning the virtues of that is labelled a transphobe. And where trans people have faced increased abuse online.
Five years which has seen academics threatened with the sack, pioneering feminists barred from speaking at women’s events, journalists no-platformed, doughty equality campaigners branded TERFs and a prominent politician resign. Even the SNP’s own hate crime legislation has been burdened by the legacy of the GRA reform. Hoisted by the SNP’s own petard.
Five years in which Sturgeon’s government could have addressed the heartbreaking issues that trans people really face trying to access relevant medical services.
Five years when she could have brought focus to what kind of GRA reform was wanted. And five years when legitimate questions could have been answered.
Five years of meaningless campaign slogans that have inculcated wider policy, rendering some words meaningless, and giving succor to intellectually bereft arguments about sex and gender.
Five years in which people have become so entrenched in their own arguments that they recognise only their own pain and to hell with all others.
Five years for bigots to have attached themselves to raw divisions over equality, like they always do.
Five years in which trans people have seen waiting times for a first appointment at one of Scotland’s four gender identity clinics rise to over four years.
And five years during which vital Scottish Government trans inclusive guidance for schools was promised, then delayed, leaving schools and teachers, for the last two years, struggling to know how they should best support trans pupils.
If members leaving her party is what now, cynically, prompts Nicola Sturgeon to try and heal this god-awful mess that has left so many hurt and abused, then she needs to take tangible action and make promises to trans people that she can keep. And she could do that now.