The Gender Recognition Reform Bill has led to the demonisation of the vulnerable trans people it claimed to champion. Tragically, their cause is now synonymous in the public eye with rapists getting access to women’s jails.
The First Minister was warned. We in the Scottish Tories were the only party at Holyrood to stand with the myriad of women’s groups who refused to be cowed. We offered changes to the legislation to stop it being abused by violent criminals and, for our pains, were derided as scaremongers. In just one week, our fears have been shown to be daily realities.
If you needed a graphic demonstration of the difference between strong leadership and arrogant, pig-headed delusion then the First Minister is the greatest exemplar since devolution. Nicola Sturgeon likes to parody Margaret Thatcher in dress and slogan. But to paraphrase Mrs Thatcher’s famous quote from St Francis, where calm was needed, she has brought anger. Where we sought temperance, she brought excess. Where we craved unity, she dug division.
Some of those who question her judgment, or simply take a different view on this most divisive of issues, are “transphobes”, “homophobes”, “misogynists” and even “racists”, she says. Does that include not just people like me but colleagues such as her former minister Ash Regan MSP and the redoubtable Joanna Cherry MP who would be that rarest of things, a homophobic lesbian? If leadership is defined as bringing a jerry can of petrol to a house fire, then that’s our leader.
Think just how she has devalued our public debate. In the 2010 general election, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology for an off-the-cuff remark when, in what he thought was a private moment, he referred to a voter as “that bigoted woman”. Now Nicola Sturgeon calls the majority of Scots worse than bigots and, rather than apologise, looks for another outlet to defame us again.
The First Minister has long been a triumph of well-practiced style over anything like intellectual substance. But in the last week, she has been well and truly exposed. Her position is that people who identify as women should have the same rights as people born as women, whatever their genitalia. However, when asked by ITV’s Peter Smith if someone born a woman would ever end up in a men’s jail, he exposed that her government’s policy was now to differentiate between women and trans women.
The First Minister never lets thinking get in the way of her assertions of certainty but there was a flash of panic across her eyes, as if she heard the distant beat of a childhood memory of something, perhaps, called logic. Her anger began to stutter. But with Nicola Sturgeon, even capitulation comes with bile rather than humility. She’s out of place and increasingly out of touch in this debate.
When the balance is a delicate one, between the rights of women and the desires of the trans community, standing with those with the placards threatening death to their opponents, as SNP MPs did last week, and ramping up the language, as the First Minister does daily, is not leadership. Proclaiming that this piece of legislation is the most consulted upon in the history of the Scottish Parliament only exposes the paucity of our procedures.
Where stands the Labour party on this? The party of Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee and Johann Lamont? They stand full-square with the SNP, their credibility as defeated as their half-hearted amendments. Whatever parliamentary game they were playing, women’s rights were defeated.
When supporters of the flawed legislation seek validation by saying that members of every party voted for it, they portray Holyrood as a walled village where public opinion is not heard. That cannot be right.
The First Minister’s policy has many flaws. But when that is demonstrated she reverts to claiming greater flaws in those who point them out rather than arguing the point. Attacking the motives of those who disagree with her is always easier than debating the substance of the issue. Yet now she is outnumbered, not by Holyrood politicians, but as the polls show, public opinion.
When we need cool heads Nicola Sturgeon is losing hers, in petulant displays of the wrath of the bunker. This may be her poll tax moment in her unconscious parody of Mrs Thatcher. A policy which makes sense to purists in theory, but which jars profoundly with the public when put into practice.
SNP backbenchers are nervous at the public backlash over the trans prisoner issue. The nine rebels who voted against their party whip on gender reform have been lauded as principled heroes, whilst those who meekly voted for the Bill have been vilified. Some, with reservations, were promised that once the Bill was passed before Christmas it would all be forgotten by January. They won’t be fooled so easily again.
Could an Ash Regan wield the knife like Sir Geoffrey Howe famously did, in a speech explaining their resignation and how out of touch the leader is? Tectonic plates may not be shifting but you feel you can hear the ice upon which the First Minister stands begin to crack.
As she imitates Mrs Thatcher to try to boost her stature, Nicola Sturgeon likes to hint at equivalence with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. Her heroine is, however, standing down, saying that she “no longer had enough in the tank” to continue in the job.
Before her colleagues decide for her, perhaps the First Minister should reflect upon where she has “enough in the tank” to continue in office. Or whether she, too, has run out of steam… and is just running on bile.
Murdo Fraser is Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife