14 May 2024

John Swinney is tying himself in knots over gender


Recently, I felt a counterintuitive pang of sympathy for John Swinney, Scotland’s new First Minister. It may not be the last. The 60-year-old former Finance Secretary became leader of the Scottish National Party without a contest last week, the party choosing to avoid a potentially divisive election, and he is trying to present himself as a unifier, a reassuring figure to draw a line under recent travails.

A more cynical analysis would be that the SNP ducked a necessary debate about its future direction and effectively deferred any tough choices. With a UK general election expected this year, and polls for the Scottish Parliament in May 2026, Swinney is left on the one hand trying to offer a fresh start and on the other maintain continuity with the SNP’s 17-year administration. He was a Cabinet Minister for 16 of those years, and Nicola Sturgeon’s Deputy from 2014 to 2023, which makes any notion of him as a candidate of change vaguely risible.

The impossible position in which Swinney finds himself – or into which he strode – is encapsulated by his approach to gender recognition reform, and the wider issue of trans rights.

The last months of Sturgeon’s tenure as First Minister were wracked by bitter controversy over the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which would have made it easier for a trans person to have the gender on their birth certificate changed.

After it had been passed by the Scottish Parliament, however, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, invoked the provisions of Section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 to prevent the Bill being given Royal Assent, on the grounds that it would adversely affect legislation on matters reserved to Westminster. A request for judicial review of the decision was rejected but the Bill has not been withdrawn.

Reasonably enough, Swinney has been pressed for his opinion on the Bill and his intentions in the policy area. He is currently trying to avoid giving a definitive answer: he has said that he will ‘wait and see’ what the political landscape looks like after the UK general election and has been ultra-cautious in saying that the Cass Review of gender identity services for children is a ‘significant piece of work’ on a ‘complex area of policy’. By contrast, Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, declared ‘I’ve seen far too many criticisms of it to be able to say’ that the review is a valid scientific study.

Asked on BBC’s Good Morning Scotland if a trans woman was a woman, Swinney tried to prevaricate: ‘I believe a woman is an adult female born as a woman, and I also accept that transgender women are defined as women’. His apparent belief that he can maintain a compromise between the two extremes of the debate over gender identity is mistaken but symbolic, an attempt to continue showing different groups whatever face they want to see.

This approach has served the SNP well in electoral terms, but on gender identity it cannot work. For the most zealously committed, this is not a scientific debate but a theological one; indeed, some reject the idea that it can be a ‘debate’ at all. Out for Indy has demanded ‘urgent clarification’ on expected legislation on so-called conversion therapy and noted ‘at a time when the LGBTQ+ community – especially trans people – face unprecedented violence and attacks… more needs to be done to reassure the community – and to assure that the SNP’s legacy of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights is not undermined’.

Even if splitting the difference were possible, it is not at all clear that it would be a vote-winning strategy. Recent polling suggests that the Scottish Government’s approach to gender reform is supported by no more than a third of the electorate, with disapproval ranking slightly higher and a substantial chunk of voters largely bemused. It is hard to imagine that those strongly in favour of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill and the more radical end of the trans rights movement are not already SNP or Green voters: that section of opinion simply has no growth potential.

If Swinney eventually aligns himself with the more radical part of his own party and with the Scottish Greens, he will not find significant electoral support to be leveraged. But running away from the issue, which was, after all, put into draft legislation by a government of which he was Deputy First Minister, would only be symptomatic of his and the SNP’s wider problem.

After 17 years in government, the Scottish Nationalists are understandably worn out. They have exercised power for far longer than anyone could have imagined when the Scottish Parliament first convened 25 years ago, but they have also suffered referendum defeat on their foundational issue of independence. If they run for re-election based on their record in office, they will struggle, as it bears several major tarnishes, but equally they have no new ‘big idea’, no evolution of their political platform, and a ‘new’ leader who previously headed the party in 2000-04.

It is hard to see how the SNP turns a page from its current circumstances. As I say, there may be more pangs of sympathy felt in the coming months. But Swinney is where he is because of choices the SNP has made, or decided not to face.

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Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group.

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