One of the biggest dangers for a political party is to get too fond of talking to itself.
That might not be a problem for the SNP, since so many of them are barely on speaking terms these days. Scotland’s ruling party is having an ugly, public falling out over ‘gender identity’, of all things. That might seem an obscure dividing line but it is a furious one and it has opened up at the worst possible time for Nicola Sturgeon.
There are two main camps in this dispute: transgender activists, who want the law changed to allow ‘self-identification’, and gender-critical feminists, who are sceptical of such a move. Nor is this rupture limited to grassroots activists: as the Scottish Daily Mail reported last week, MPs Joanna Cherry and Mhairi Black had a ‘blazing row’ at a recent parliamentary group meeting.
Rows over ‘gender identity’ are also tearing the Labour Party apart, but disunity is nothing new there. In the SNP in recent years, this kind of factionalism has been unheard of, and is worrying for a leadership already struggling to placate activists over the failure to deliver another independence referendum.
For those not au fait with gender theory, this debate can feel like a tornado of acronyms and assertions, bearing down ominously until you agree to stop asking questions and quietly acquiesce. The twin British impulses of politeness and wanting a quiet life conspire to make many keep their heads down to avoid saying the wrong thing or being branded ‘phobic’ towards something they were barely aware of until recently.
This is not a helpful environment in which to debate changing the law on something as fundamental as what makes a woman or a man. In Scotland right now, there are two main articles of policy at issue.
First are the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act that will end the current procedure for obtaining a gender recognition certificate, in which you must receive a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and live as the opposite gender for two years. In its place would come a laxer system of self-identification, in which individuals can obtain a certificate without medical involvement. Instead, they need only declare themselves to be transgender and live in their preferred gender for six months.
The second issue is the 2021 census. The National Records of Scotland wants to include guidance that individuals can fill out the sex question according to what they consider their ‘gender identity’ to be rather than their birth sex.
Transgender activists say the Gender Recognition Act must be changed because requiring a medical diagnosis before someone is deemed to have ‘transitioned’ is demeaning. They believe that an anatomically male person is a woman if he identifies and lives as one, and therefore must be afforded the same rights and services as a woman. As to the census, trans campaigners claim it would be humiliating to demand people answer with a sex which they do not feel they belong to.
On the other side are a group of feminists who argue that gender is just a jumble of myths and stereotypes about how men and women should behave. There is no right or wrong way to be male or female, they maintain, and question whether those who believe they were ‘born in the wrong body’ are simply judging themselves against meaningless social conventions about how men and women should behave.
Gender-critical feminists warn that allowing men to self-identify as women risks collapsing women as a distinct group, undermining their sex-based rights under the Equality Act and compromising protected spaces designed to keep women safe.
Murray Blackburn Mackenzie, a group of feminist public policy experts, fear that weakening the census sex question puts Scotland ‘at risk of losing meaningful data on a key demographic variable used by policy-makers and statisticians’. The journalist Caroline Criado-Perez has argued in her book Invisible Women that not collecting data on women properly can have negative, even deadly, consequences.
The debate over these legislative and policy alterations is utterly vicious. Feminists have been vilified on social media, had their meetings disrupted, and been physically threatened and attacked. Academics have been turned on by their colleagues and ‘deplatformed’ from university debates because they espouse the wrong views. Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, was recently uninvited from the Oxford International Women’s Festival after pressure from trans activists.
The SNP too has been riven by bitter infighting. For journalists, it is jarring to see a party that operates on iron discipline stand by while female members, including MPs and MSPs, are abused from within the party’s ranks.
It has certainly taught me a surprising new respect for Joan McAlpine, who was the first to speak out and urge caution about the proposed changes. She has been subjected to an avalanche of the nastiest, most personal bile on social media, much of it unrepeatable on a lavatory wall let alone the pages of a national newspaper. Shockingly, some of it has come from members and supporters of her own party, yet she has held her ground admirably and without resorting to the rhetoric of those demonising her.
For a party failing so starkly to deliver on bread-and-butter issues like health and education, there is a last-days-of-Rome decadence to an internal conflict many voters would mistake for a Monty Python sketch. NHS queues are teeming with patients waiting long beyond ‘legally binding’ targets and the Nationalists are at each others’ throats over whether a woman can have a penis. It is the theatre of the absurd posing as a governing party.
For the tiny fraction of the population affected by gender dysphoria, it is essential that their rights continue to be protected and their services provided. It is vital too that they are treated with respect and compassion. The law already does this but where reform might be required, it should be considered carefully, with cool heads and as part of a reasonable ordering of priorities.
The SNP does not exist to legislate abstract gender theory or to redefine what it means to be a woman. It exists to achieve independence for Scotland. I would quite happily see the Nationalists spend their remaining time in government bickering over male and female pronouns because I have their worst interests at heart.
What an increasing number of SNP members struggle to understand is why Nicola Sturgeon is willing to burn up her political capital to advance a contentious marginal agenda but not to further the independence cause by challenging the UK Government in court or organising a unilateral referendum.
So far we have seen skirmishes in the Nationalist gender conflict but they threaten to break into civil war if the leadership is not careful. The SNP is stronger for being the party of both Mhairi Black and Joanna Cherry and it has to find a way to manage basic differences of opinion in a respectful manner.
The problem is that in rushing to legislate another ‘Scottish first’, the Scottish Government has exposed a fault line that cannot easily be smoothed over. Either side sees its position as fundamental and not open to compromise.
Nicola Sturgeon viewed gender recognition reform as an easy hit for her ‘progressive’ agenda: no virtue left unsignalled. But it turns out her plans might have a reactionary outcome for women and SNP women are more than entitled to resist such a policy.
Ministers have already ‘paused’ this reform once and the best solution might be to do so again. Allow time for a proper consultation as part of a genuine national debate that involves the voters and not just Scottish Government funded third-sector organisations that, shockingly enough, echo the position of the Scottish Government.
Nicola Sturgeon should heed these foreboding signs of strife and discontent and think again. The SNP will not allow itself to be torn apart by the agenda of a First Minister who will go to the mattresses for every cause but independence.