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13 December 2022

Nicola Sturgeon has stoked needless divisions over trans rights

The First Minister has stubbornly refused to debate or even particularly to acknowledge her opponents on gender reform.

By Chris Deerin

For all its controversies the Gender Reform Bill will effectively be waved through when it comes before the Scottish Parliament for the final time next week.

Despite the outrage expressed by many feminists and other critics about the potential negative impact of the bill on women-only spaces, on the safety of young people and on parents’ rights, it will become a relatively simple matter for anyone to legally change their gender in Scotland.

Though there has been a sizeable rebellion in SNP ranks over the proposals – including the first ministerial resignation over policy during Nicola Sturgeon’s reign – Labour’s acquiescence ensures the parliamentary numbers are overwhelmingly in favour. Although insiders say a majority of the Labour group at Holyrood is sceptical of the reforms, Anas Sarwar, the party leader, has insisted his MSPs back them, proposing only minimal amendments.

It has been an unhappy and divisive experience for everyone involved. Perhaps the most visible objection came this week when JK Rowling revealed she was funding Beira’s Place, a women-only support centre in Edinburgh for victims of sexual assault.

It is hard to look kindly on Sturgeon’s handling of the debate. It might be thought a First Minister’s job is to build consensus behind change, especially where vulnerable individuals are involved, but instead Sturgeon adopted the most radical position on gender reform from the outset. Ever since she has stubbornly refused to debate or even particularly to acknowledge her opponents and their objections.

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On this view, Sturgeon has been a cowardly midwife of division. Her approach has ensured the process has been considerably more heated and aggressive than it needed to be, or should have been, and has prevented any prospect of the two sides finding common ground. She has not sought to find compromise or lead a discussion – quite the opposite, even as developments south of the border around the Tavistock NHS gender and identity clinic, which has been ordered to close, and the Mermaids charity, which is being investigated by regulators, have raised important and complex issues. As an exercise in narrow political management it has been a success – she will get her reforms through. But as an exercise in national political leadership it has been an unmitigated disaster.

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Why has Sturgeon done it? Partly out of principle and belief, I’m sure. But it is also possible that the SNP, which with an eye on the future prospects for achieving independence often seeks to align itself with youth opinion in Scotland, cynically decided to get behind a cause that was being picked up by teenage political activists in universities and elsewhere. The Nat leadership will also have known that a Conservative government at Westminster was considerably less likely to embrace the issue, allowing the SNP yet again to paint itself as more “progressive”.

Unfortunately, Sturgeon’s passion for liberalising self-identification rules is not shared by many of those she once regarded as fellow feminists, or even by a majority of her fellow Scots – a recent poll by Panelbase for the Times showed that significantly more people were against the gender reforms than supported them.

Even the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women and girls has intervened, asking the Scottish government to pause its changes until their potential consequences can be properly investigated. Sturgeon has of course refused. There was then a campaign by sympathetic organisations, many of whom are funded by the Scottish government, to isolate and traduce the rapporteur.

The First Minister wants her gender reforms to form a key part of her legacy. They will certainly do that, but possibly not in the way she intends.

[See also: Is support for Scottish independence resurging?]