8 February 2023

How much will the trans rights row really damage the SNP cause?


Groundhog Day, before the 1993 movie came along, was no more than a North American tradition in which the weather for the next six weeks could be predicted according to whether the rodent of the title perceived his own shadow when emerging from its burrow.

In this respect, Scottish politics can be analogous both to this tradition and the theme of the film: pundits are constantly trying to divine portents of the future based on an examination of often unreliable data, while at the same time resigning themselves to more interminably identical days in which the SNP navigate their way (badly) through the latest crisis and emerge seemingly unscathed.

Few would have predicted that the apparently innocuous and well-below-the-radar issue of trans rights could have triggered the biggest crisis ever in Scotland’s governing party. But many more have examined the entrails nonetheless, and concluded that Nicola Sturgeon’s days as First Minister are numbered.

As with every prediction about Scottish politics, this is partly right and partly wrong.

It can hardly be denied that Sturgeon made a colossal misjudgement when she chose to promote self-ID for trans people. She perhaps imagined that she could follow in the footsteps of Canada’s Justin Trudeau and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern by making Scotland a beacon of progressivism, in deliberate contrast to the staid conservatism of our larger neighbour to the south.

Sturgeon is too strategic a politician to have relied on an unprecedented intervention by the UK government to prevent her bill becoming law; she is not averse to provoking and exploiting any anti-English grievance that comes along, but it is far more likely that she saw the greater benefits to the nationalist cause from the bill’s implementation and from her opportunity to broadcast the difference between progressive, tolerant Scotland and nasty, regressive England.

Failing to anticipate that the Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack, would invoke – for the first time in the history of devolution – a section of the Scotland Act preventing a Holyrood Bill receiving Royal Assent, was the First Minister’s first mistake. She was wrong-footed and that has happened only rarely in her eight-year tenure in Bute House.

Her second mistake was in failing to read the room. Perhaps it was complacency based on years of nationalist hegemony in which ministerial misjudgements and unforced errors were tolerated by a supportive electorate and failure to deliver had no negative impact on the polls. But whatever the reason, Nicola Sturgeon made an assumption about the Scottish public’s support for the trans agenda. And we all know what Oscar Wilde said about people who assume…

So long as self-ID was no more than an administrative process that changed very little, most voters gave the topic little thought. The voices of women’s groups lobbying and protesting at the Scottish Parliament about the threats to women-only places and services could be conveniently ignored and side-lined, provided the public weren’t paying attention.

But then the public started paying attention, and it all went downhill from there. Scandalously, Isla Bryson was not the first biologically male rapist to have been placed in a women-only prison after declaring that he was, in fact, a woman (an epiphany that only happened after he was charged with a double rape). But his incarceration was perfect timing, coming as it did in the same week that Jack’s Section 35 intervention occurred and when Scots were only just waking up to the whole issue of trans rights and their conflict with women’s rights and safety.

It’s worth noting that Bryson (previously known as Adam Graham) was not impacted at all by the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (GRRB), since it has not reached the statute books yet. He was, however, the beneficiary of the same system and same cultural ideology that led to the GRRB in the first place: a capture of civic Scotland by the trans ideologues of Stonewall, with its unshakeable, uncompromising and unscientific mantra, ‘Trans women are women’.

So it was an easy task, after Sturgeon announced a reversal of the decision to place a male rapist among the most vulnerable women in the country, to challenge her on whether Bryson was, in fact, a woman. After all, as a fully signed-up follower of the Stonewall cult, Sturgeon could hardly claim Bryson was a ‘he’ rather than a ‘she’. But if he was, in fact, a woman (by Stonewall’s and Sturgeon’s definition), then why was ‘she’ being placed in a men’s prison?

It was, for Sturgeon, the unanswerable question, so she refused to answer it when it was put to her by the Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, in the Holyrood chamber. Her transport minister, Jenny Gilruth, suffered a more publicly humiliating fate when she also tried to avoid the same question on the BBC’s Question Time programme that week. Challenged by another panellist on whether Bryson was a man or a woman, Gilruth sheepishly and unconvincingly stuck to her line that ‘this individual is a rapist’.

Polling of Scottish opinion has concluded what most of us already know: that while people are generally sympathetic to those who genuinely suffer from gender dysphoria, they also oppose men – especially violent, misogynist ones – being placed in a women’s prison.

Why had Sturgeon not anticipated this? Does she talk with her own constituents in Glasgow’s south side about these matters, or does she rely too heavily on a small coterie of advisers who have consumed just a bit too much of the Stonewall Kool-aid?

And so, just as the news cameras await the verdict of Punxsutawney Phil, so the punditocracy eagerly anticipated the impact of all this drama on the SNP’s polling levels. And, as most would have predicted, there was a significant drop – not only in support for the SNP at both Holyrood and Westminster, but for independence too. Alex Salmond, once Sturgeon’s friend, ally and mentor, castigated her for wasting much of the advance the nationalist movement has made in recent years with her ‘absurd’ devotion to trans self-ID.

But however much the SNP’s support has been damaged by the row, it still commands 42% of the vote in Westminster polling. During Labour’s decades at the top of Scottish politics, and aside from the 1997 result, that was about the high water mark for party. The SNP’s domination of Scottish politics continues, albeit in a slightly less vociferous and more chastised form.

But could Sturgeon’s misjudgements signal a longer-term decline in support for her cause and her party? Much depends on what she eventually decides to do: speculation is growing about when she will finally step aside as First Minister and SNP leader. There are plenty of her cabinet colleagues who fancy the job themselves, and pro-UK observers rub their hands with glee at the prospect of a less able, less effective leader taking her place.

Which reminds me of conversations I used to have with Scottish Labour MPs in the Commons tearoom when Salmond was still First Minister: after he’s gone, who have they got to replace him? Sturgeon? Who’d vote for her…?

Such were the levels of complacency and hubris that brought Scottish Labour so low in 2015.

Nevertheless, this is not 2014. The prospect of a Holyrood-run independence referendum has evaporated, the UK government, for the first time since devolution was introduced, is prepared to stand up to the First Minister when the future of the Union is at stake, and the SNP have been in power for 16 long years.

Individual failings on the building of ferries, on the attainment gap in schools and in health have had little individual impact on the SNP’s support. But perhaps, just perhaps, the high-profile failure of Sturgeon to take account of public feeling on the trans issue has sparked some sort of awareness in voters that this government isn’t as infallible as it once seemed.

The polls don’t have to perform a reversal or to revert to pre-2014 levels in which Labour dominated; they only have to raise the prospect of significant numbers of nationalist MPs or MSPs losing their seats. Once that air of invulnerability is lost, events can feel like they’re assuming a momentum of their own.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course. But for opponents of nationalism and supporters of the UK, 2023 is certainly a better place to be than any year since 2007.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.