Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they found Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.
From the sacking of Joanna Cherry from their Westminster front bench, to the astonishing legal and political battles surrounding Alex Salmond, SNP infighting has been making headlines all round. From a Radical point of view, this has caught our attention, because gender ideology is serving both as a cause of splits in the party, and a battleground on which a proxy war for its control is arguably being fought.
You’ve probably noticed that the Scottish government has been pushing ahead with reforms to the Scottish Gender Recognition Act — reforms that would enable people to change their legal sex on the basis of a personal declaration, with no need for any diagnosis of gender dysphoria or other external validation. Yes, this would entail a seismic policy shift to what’s generally referred to as “self-ID”, and which the UK government recently decided not to pursue.
This topic been causing disagreements within the SNP for some years, with senior women including Cherry and finance minister Kate Forbes having expressed their opposition to the introduction of self-ID. Then, at the start of February, Cherry was sacked from her position as SNP spokesperson for Justice and Home Affairs. This followed a high profile and acrimonious row with fellow SNP MP Kirsty Blackman, and the SNP LGBT group “Out for Independence”, which involved allegations of transphobia and antisemitism.
The row was triggered by Cherry’s support for Sarah Phillimore, a barrister who was suspended from Twitter for expressing gender critical views. Phillimore has commenced legal proceedings against Blackman for defamation, and, in an extraordinary twist, another SNP front bencher was sacked after donating to Phillimore’s crowd funder for legal expenses.
It’s crucial to note that this ongoing debate over sex and gender is closely linked to the hate crime laws also being pushed by the Scottish government. The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament would create a new offence of “stirring up hatred”, the scope of which would include relevant incidents related to the protected characteristic of “transgender identity”.
This had led to concerns that it might be the case that, with the passing of the bill, expressing opposition to gender recognition laws, or simply expressing the view that human beings cannot change biological sex, would become criminalised, or that freedom of expression related to these matters would at least become seriously curtailed, owing to people’s fear of falling foul of the new offence.
An amendment to the bill, intended to protect free speech in the “discussion or criticism” of transgender identity, appears to have provoked an “exodus” of young SNP activists from the party. And this, in turn, led to Sturgeon making a speech, in which she firmly took the side of the trans activists, and declared an aim of zero tolerance for transphobia within the party.
This response to the free speech amendment seems to validate the concerns of critics of the bill. After all, as we have argued here many times, the introduction of self-ID is not unequivocally in the interests of trans people: just look at the healthcare risks trans people will face if census-data collectors continue down the self-ID route.
It is absolutely essential for the purposes of proper healthcare resource allocation that there are reliable national statistics, for instance, on the number of people who need access to regular cervical smear tests, or information about testicular cancer screening. It is in nobody’s interests for the simple recognition of biological facts to become illegal — and to equate such recognition with hatred is to diminish the serious genuine struggles trans people often face.
Now, since Cherry is firmly on the “gender-critical” side of the debate — the side, that is, that believes in biological sex, and the societal importance of recognising truths about it — her sacking could easily be seen as a related power play by Sturgeon.
Polling suggests that the removal of Cherry from the front bench has the support of a majority of SNP members. Moreover, Cherry is also associated with Salmond. And the Scottish Parliament’s ongoing inquiry into Sturgeon’s behaviour in connection with the complaints against Salmond — and the eventual criminal proceedings that arose from these complaints — could conceivably result in a finding that Sturgeon violated the ministerial code, and would therefore be expected to resign.
Shoring up her position with party members on a cause that is a priority for many of them will surely help, if Sturgeon is forced to fight to retain the position of first minister and party leader. And SNP members and voters generally support gender-recognitions reforms, even if these are not widely supported by Scottish voters as a whole (indeed, polls suggest that reform of the Gender Recognition Act is of low salience, and only supported by 37 per cent of voters in Scotland).
Now, playing to the party base in times of trouble is, of course, nothing new in politics. Indeed, for supporters of other parties, it’s tempting to enjoy the schadenfreude of SNP MPs, MSPs, and activists turning their customary sanctimony and high-handedness on to each other.
But don’t forget that this power struggle isn’t simply limited to arguments about sex and gender. It carries with it serious threats to free speech and democratic accountability, and reflects deep structural problems with the devolution settlement in Scotland.
Sturgeon may be happy to instrumentalise the interests of trans people and women alike — for it is women who will suffer most at the introduction of self-ID — to try to hold on to her power over what increasingly often seems like a one-party state. But this isn’t just wrong in itself: it likely won’t end happily for anyone.