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Sturgeon’s Gender Bill – grubby politics or genuine principle?


THERE are two schools of thought about Nicola Sturgeon’s motivation for passing the controversial Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill which is now to be vetoed by the British government. Since the First Minister was warned by her own lawyers that such an outcome was likely, many people have concluded that passing the Bill was a ploy whose main aim was to entangle London in another court case whose effect would be to provide free publicity for the Scottish National Party at the British taxpayers’ expense. That happened with the recent Supreme Court case concerning the ‘advisory’ referendum. It lifted SNP support in the polls considerably, though not for long. Might Sturgeon be planning another publicity stunt with the Gender Bill?

Other observers argue that the First Minister is a hyper-feminist who is not psychologically free to permit open discussion of all strands of opinion on this subject. They say her motivation is a pure passion for gender-based justice as she sees it.

Which view is correct? Is this a matter of grubby politics or genuine principle?

I have some evidence to hand which might help answer that question. In December, I published the first volume of my political biography of Sturgeon (details below), which covers her life until she became Deputy First Minister in 2007. My main source is the Official Report, which is Scotland’s Hansard. It enabled me to look up the previous debate on gender, which was held in the Holyrood chamber on February 5, 2004. Sturgeon was then the Justice spokesperson for the SNP and she led the attack for the Opposition against the then Labour government. What might her contribution to that debate tell us about her long-term motivation today?

The issue in 2004 was the Gender Recognition Bill, which was then going through the Westminster parliament. Since it concerned devolved matters only peripherally, this was to be ‘kilted’ in Holyrood using what is called a ‘Sewel motion’. That is a device used by devolved governments when the issue concerns the whole of the UK and the arguments are therefore debated fully (one hopes!) in the House of Commons.

The operation is named after Lord Sewel, a Labour politician ennobled by Tony Blair, who helped pilot the Scotland Act through Westminster in 1998. After helping to create the Holyrood parliament, he became Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords. But his career was destroyed in 2015 when he was exposed in the Sun for having attended a ‘naughty party’ at which he was photographed self-identifying, rather unexpectedly for a grey academic, in a skimpy red bra.

The 2004 Gender Recognition Act was mandated by the requirement for equal opportunities after a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights in 2002. As it was a ‘Sewel motion’, only half an hour was allocated. When Sturgeon spoke she complained about that. But she wanted to complicate matters all the same.

‘I begin by saying that I strongly support the principles of the Gender Recognition Bill,’ she said. ‘Notwithstanding that, my colleagues and I will vote against the Sewel motion.’ She gave two reasons for this, both loosely connected with the lack of parliamentary time.

First, ‘the Bill deals with many complex matters of law that are devolved to the parliament’. The seriousness of this point can be judged by considering the Justice Committee session which had been devoted to scrutinising the ‘complex matters of law’ which the Bill raised a week earlier, on January 28.

In fact, only two members, both SNP, made substantive points in committee. Michael Matheson, an occupational therapist who is now Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, asked: ‘If a male who had acquired a female identity chose to join a female-only religious order, how would that order check the person’s identity?’

He followed that up by saying: ‘If the order said, “We have found out that you have changed your gender identity; you must leave”, what penalties would they be subject to?’

The other ‘complex matter of law’ was put by Stewart Maxwell, who had worked for the Strathclyde Fire Brigade before being elected to parliament a year earlier. Maxwell’s concern was this: ‘If someone who had been receiving a state pension since they were 60 underwent a female-to-male change before they turned 65 their pension would be withdrawn.’ Serious stuff, of course, but ‘complex’?

The only other member to raise a concern was Margaret Smith for the LibDems, the first openly gay MSP. She was worried that ‘people who do not really want to divorce might be forced to do so’ by the legislation. Margaret Mitchell, the Conservatives’ justice spokesperson, attended but said nothing substantive. It is hard to see how the ‘complex matters of law’ raised by Matheson and Maxwell were such as to force an unwilling Sturgeon to vote against a Bill she supported.

Her other reason for voting against the Bill was because ‘when an issue is controversial we should have open debate and allow all strands of opinion to be heard’. She concluded: ‘People do not send us here as MSPs and pay us handsomely for that privilege to hand huge chunks of legislative power back to London while we fritter the hours away on motherhood-and-apple-pie debates that change little in Scotland.’

Some would ask how this Bill handed ‘huge chunks of legislative power back to London’ (where it had never been before the ECHR ruled). Or was that a manufactured grievance? Sturgeon may believe in feminism for all I know, but she does seem on this evidence to be more interested in tripping up London governments, whether Labour in 2004 or Conservative today, than advancing a wider cause. Has anyone noticed Sturgeon striving against bitter opposition to ‘allow all strands of opinion to be heard’ on ‘complex matters of law’ in the gender debate today?

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Ian Mitchell
Ian Mitchell
Ian Mitchell is the author of Nicola Sturgeon, Vol. 1 – The Years of Ascent 1970-2007 – A Citizen’s Biography of a Driven Woman in a Drifting Parliament (2022) available here.

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