Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Quickfire
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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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.

Content from our partners
The truth about employability
Why we need a Minister for Citizen Experience
Powering careers that secure our net zero future

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?]