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31 January 2023

Nicola Sturgeon is the author of her own misfortune

The First Minister’s careless handling of the gender bill has split her government, her party and the nationalist movement.

By Chris Deerin

Occasionally a senior politician utters the unspoken truth out loud – it is useful, for example, when anti-immigration ministers use words like “swamped” or “riddled”, so we know what prejudice is really driving their actions.

In the latest edition of Holyrood magazine Alex Salmond has done something similarly helpful. Writing about his time as first minister, he says he governed in “the knowledge that everything we proposed should be designed, de minimis, to do no damage to the independence cause, which was then, and still should be, the SNP’s raison d’être”.

It’s no secret what gets nationalist politicians out of bed in the morning but, to the best of my knowledge, they have previously avoided acknowledging that the nature and efficacy of government policy must always be subordinate to the independence urge. We’ve known it, have repeatedly accused them of it – the evidence is everywhere around us, after all – but they have for obvious reasons refused to admit it.

Now that Salmond has blown the gaff it is easier to explain why Scotland’s devolved government of the past 16 years has consistently swerved essential reforms, so that the nation now trails its international competitors in meaningful comparisons in most areas. Our schools have been abandoned to the cosy consensus of left-wing educationists, our health service has been left to run itself into the ground, and the economy – that evil plaything of capitalists and profit-mongers – has taken second place to social justice stunts that are intended to show Scots they are more progressive than, and therefore different to, the English.

Many Scottish voters have been so bamboozled by the SNP’s unremitting constitutional blah, its constant dashes up the hill towards a second referendum (followed by quick retreat), and its confected wars with Westminster, that they seem simply to have missed what has turned into a period of national neglect and decline.

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Salmond makes another good point about the “first, do no harm to indy” stricture. “It is this more than anything else which makes it difficult to understand the reasoning behind the Scottish government’s headlong pursuit of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill in the current parliament.”

It is indeed baffling that the only issue on which Nicola Sturgeon has dared go against public opinion in her nine years in office is one that is intended to benefit a tiny proportion of the population. Her proposed reforms to make it easier to legally change gender were controversial from the start, raised howls of anger from those worried about their potential impact on women’s rights and, as the U-turn on trans prisoners has proved, were ill thought through. I don’t doubt Sturgeon’s heart is in her gender activism but she has handled the whole affair so badly that the only possible verdict is that she left her brain unplugged. Either that or the Greens that she so foolishly invited into her government are holding some damaging kompromat over her head.

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Sturgeon has also undeniably set back the independence cause. The gender recognition reform issue has split her government, her party and the wider movement. The unnerving loyalty shown by nationalist politicians throughout the SNP’s hegemony has been shattered. Recent months have brought about a mix of confusion, disaffectedness and outright rage. That’s before we get to the impact on the electorate, particularly those swing voters who have so far kept the SNP in office and whose support will be vital if the party is ever to win a second independence referendum. We should watch the next few months’ polls with interest.

In another universe Sturgeon is preparing for a second referendum on 19 October this year, a plan she confidently proposed only last June, though it now feels about three strategy rethinks ago. In that universe support for independence is consistently sitting at 60 per cent in the polls, the Tories are languishing under their latest useless leader at Westminster and the hopeless miscalculation of Brexit has Scots gagging to quit the UK and rejoin the EU.

Instead her government is at bay and she has embittered rebels on the backbenches; her Westminster group has been taken over by someone (Stephen Flynn) who owes her little, is ambitious, and who openly talks of taking a seat at Holyrood; her previously unquestioned leadership credentials are increasingly a matter of internal debate; and the smarter thinkers in the party have begun to plan seriously for life after Sturgeon, including the development of alternative models of governance and securing another referendum. This stuff cannot be put back in the bottle.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the First Minister, like others who have perhaps stayed in office too long and begun to believe in her own invincibility, will ultimately prove to be the author of her own misfortune.

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon is right on gender recognition]

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