On Wednesday 15th February journalists gathered in Bute House for a surprise press conference. After a tense wait, a seemingly calm Nicola Sturgeon appeared and dropped a bombshell. She would resign as First Minister and leader of the SNP. She assured TV cameras this was not a response to short term pressures but because she felt she could no longer give Scotland ‘the energy of leadership that it needs’ and blamed the ‘fixed opinions people increasingly have about [her]’ being ‘barriers to reasoned debate.’ But was she being truthful? And what does this mean for the UK?
There are 2 broad underlying causes of the atmosphere of bitterness that led to Sturgeon’s resignation. Firstly, the dire record of her SNP government on domestic policy, especially drug deaths, education and healthcare. Secondly, her failure to secure independence since taking office in 2014.
However there certainly were ‘short term pressures’ that led to her ousting, however much she denies it. The first trigger was November’s Supreme Court ruling against a unilateral second referendum, which would have dragged Scotland further into the well of bitterness and division as well as being against the law. The second trigger was the poorly planned Gender Bill which will now be covered in depth.
The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill was first mooted in 2017 by the SNP-led Scottish government, which felt the need to be seen as supportive of trans activism. Immediately after its draft provisions became clear in 2019 the SNP was warned it would conflict with UK-wide legislation and reserved powers, create massive problems in single sex spaces and allow vulnerable children to undergo impulsive gender changes. Sturgeon ignored these concerns. On the 22nd December 2022 an obedient Scottish Parliament passed the Gender Bill. In order to become law it had to be given Royal Assent. However, the UK government quite rightly announced its decision to block this under the Scotland Act 1998 (Section 35) on the 17th January 2023 as incompatible with the Equality Act 2010 and the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The SNP had in effect tried to stage a power grab, and been stopped.
There were 3 main changes the Bill made. Firstly, it lowered to 16 the age a Gender Recognition Certificate could be obtained (this legally recognises one’s new gender and allows changing one’s birth certificate.) Secondly, it removed the requirement for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Thirdly, it removed the requirement for an applicant to live in their acquired gender for 2 years, lowering this to 3 months (or 6 months under 18) with no evidence required.
The recklessness and irresponsibility of these measures was undoubtable. For one, allowing children who have just turned 16 to transition to a new gender is potentially harmful, as a hasty transition may cause later regret and shame, affecting mental health. It is far better to wait until at least 18 since by then the process of puberty, with all its unpleasantness in getting used to a new body, will be sure to have ended. Then the boy or girl will be able to make a more informed decision, although ideally any transition will wait until around age 25 when the brain is fully formed. The medical side of this is even more worrying. There appears to be a runaway effect where pushing children who express even the slightest doubt about their gender to identify as trans leads them first to behavioural and social changes, and then to irreversible medical choices. The Tavistock Clinic scandal was a horrifying example of this, where gender-confused children were prescribed puberty blockers supposedly to ‘give them time to think’ but EVERY SINGLE ONE of them went on to transition. These puberty blockers lowered bone density, resulting in fractures. Some were propelled onto hysterectomies, mastectomies and vaginoplasties, which risk infection and the resulting organs are often primitive. Even worse, 60% of boys and 80% of girls were gay or bisexual, leading to accusations of ‘gay conversion therapy’ of children simply temporarily uncomfortable with their sexuality. There is a balance to be struck between trans and LGB rights here, which the Scottish nationalists are failing at.
A mere 3 month reflection period for those over 18 is also bad, as it similarly allows hasty, reckless and impulsive choices that the adult may come to regret. Trans activists may be right that the 2 year requirement in the nearly 2 decade old GRA 2004 may be too onerous. Perhaps 1 year would be better. But allowing someone to dress up in a new gender every season is surely absurd. Combined with “Self-identification” i.e the removal of the need for any medical evidence whatsoever to support an application, and the substitution of an uninformed bureaucrat Registrar General for skilled Medical Panels and the whole process becomes dangerously casual. Having the proper amount of time to think and proper safeguarding is essential.
Nicola Sturgeon, in an incredibly hypocritical moment, accused the UK government of “using trans people … as a political weapon” in January. She pretended to be surprised by the Bill being blocked when she had been warned for 4 years. She cynically went ahead with something she knew would raise the hopes of trans activists but had no chance of success – all the while planning to blame the Conservatives for its inevitable failure. Sturgeon was likely more interested in using it to advance the cause of independence by forcing a confrontation with Westminster, than to help advance trans activism.
This confrontation, which could have been avoided by the SNP, happened because the UK government considered the Scottish Parliament to have neither the moral right, nor the legal right to legislate on this issue. We have dealt with the moral aspect, let us turn to the law.
The Scotland Act 1998 determines how devolved government in Scotland works. Some powers are reserved to the UK Parliament , others are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. One reserved power is ‘equal opportunities’. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010 are the 2 main sources of law affecting transgender people. Both acts were passed by the UK Parliament, which is the highest constitutional authority and cannot be overruled by other bodies. However, Holyrood tried to entirely change the law on changing one’s sex in Scotland, which of course would have a massive impact on the rest of the UK as people constantly move from North to South. Therefore, the government rightly blocked it for attempting to create “2 parallel and very different regimes for issuing and interpreting GRCs within the UK.” Lastly, a laughable argument has been put forward by the Bill’s supporters like Stonewall. This says the Bill is legal as its own wording states “For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act modifies the Equality Act 2010”. Which is the equivalent of a kid sticking a note on an empty cookie jar saying “I didn’t do it.”
There is also the issue of legitimacy. Under what authority does the Scottish Parliament attempt to change the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, when none of its MSPs represent anyone there? Effectively this Bill’s attempted hammering-through by Sturgeon’s SNP was an exercise in power without accountability, for which they have paid dearly in public opinion.
Currently the UK accepts gender certificates from a list of vetted countries. The Bill’s Section 8N opens the floodgates and says ALL foreign countries’ gender certificates, even those with inadequate safeguards and worrying surgical practices, should be recognised. Such rashness can only end badly.
To be fair, the Bill does retain some safeguards. Section 6B states the Scottish police can apply for a sexual harm prevention order to prevent a particular person obtaining a GRC. This would mean for example a male rapist with a penis who makes a suspicious application to change gender, and thus enter a women’s prison, could be blocked. And Section 14 provides that the offense of making a false application can incur a fine or up to 12 months in prison.
However, these few safeguards pale into comparison with the dangers. One not yet mentioned is the prospective effect on single sex spaces. Transgender women, even if they retain male features, cannot be legally excluded from these spaces. The removal of most rules and the consequent likely surge in trans women in women only clubs and sports teams could easily, as the Conservative government’s Statement of Reasons points out, make women using these spaces ‘uncomfortable, or even traumatized’. And they make the strong point that the Bill would be ‘in effect disincentivizing such provision’ of single sex spaces, which many women value for their tranquility and safety. Single sex girls schools would similarly be adversely affected, with the added potential for dorm room incidents if they are boarding. And just as Sturgeon would have UK wide women’s health clubs accept more lax Scottish GRCs, or be forced to split into Scottish and non-Scottish branches, so too would she try to unilaterally change UK wide tax, benefit and pension systems. The UK government points out: “Existing IT infrastructure only allows one legal sex on any record and cannot change the marker for 16-17 year olds. Those responsible for these systems consider that it may be unmanageable, even with considerable time and expense, to build system capability to manage a dual identity for the same individual if someone’s legal sex could be different in Scots law and the law for England and Wales.”
In the end it was the case of Isla Bryson that doomed Sturgeon. On the 24th January, Isla Bryson, a 31 yr old transgender woman was found guilty of 2 rapes, done while she was still a man named Adam Graham in 2016 and 2019. She was very controversially immediately imprisoned in the all female Corton Vale prison in Scotland, sparking a massive backlash. Given as she had had no surgery, and her motivation for transitioning so late seemed dishonest, this was unsurprising. Sturgeon, under huge pressure, refused to say whether the trans rapist was a man or a woman, making herself look ridiculous and showing she did not really believe her own supporters’ premise that anyone who claimed to be a woman was therefore a woman. She did send Bryson to a male prison, but the damage was done, her premiership was mortally wounded and she could only go on for so long before she had to face that fact. That it was discovered another trans criminal, this time a stalker named Tiffany Scot with a Lifetime Restriction Order, was going to be sent to a female prison merely added fuel to the fire. Sturgeon stepped in to stop it, but the agonising spectacle of her U turn had shattered her authority.
Sturgeon and Alex Salmond were the 2 stand-out Scottish politicians of the last 2 decades. Few, if any, can hope to match their popularity in the short term. Hopefuls like Humza Yousef, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan lack name recognition and the same steel-edged charisma as Sturgeon. Hopefully, now she has gone, the Scottish people will be able to take stock once more and realise the failure of the SNP government to deliver at home. Certainly some seats will swing back to Labour, which is the lesser of 2 evils. Above all, the misguided cause of secession, or so called ‘independence’ has been dealt a blow. The SNP is rowing back on her plan to treat the next General Election as a de facto referendum. Party infighting and inertia look likely after 16 years in government with little to show for it. This can only be good news for supporters of a strong United Kingdom, which Scotland has both benefited from and contributed to for 316 years, and which it would be a great shame to see go in the face of petty nationalism.
In summary, the real reason for Nicola Sturgeon’s exit was primarily the reckless, harmful Gender Bill which was both immoral and illegal. Its immorality came from how it would allow people, even 16 year old children, to apply (with absolutely no medical evidence) for hasty transitions they might regret, endanger single sex spaces like health clubs, schools and prisons, and accept GRCs from poorly regulated countries. This was compounded by the fact Sturgeon knew it would be blocked but duplicitously pretended not to in order to use it as a political weapon. Its illegality came from the attempt to legislate on the reserved matters of equal opportunities, fiscal policy and social security by modifying the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010 passed by sovereign Parliament, and so it was quite rightly blocked by the UK government under the powers given to it by the Scotland Act 1998. The debacle was entirely caused by Sturgeon’s opportunistic power grab and desire to wreck the UK by any means possible, and for that reason she had to resign, helped by a scandal about a trans rapist. Hopefully now this polarizing influence in Scottish politics is gone, the people of Scotland can hope for a return to a more civil and peaceful politics. One thing is for sure, they deserve better than what government in Holyrood has been able to give them.