Nicola Sturgeon is Scotland's leading culture warrior. Don't be fooled by her talk of peace and reconciliation – Susan Dalgety

The Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht, a new book by Susan Dalgety and Lucy Hunter Blackburn, collects stories from many ordinary women who experienced the toxic political debate around gender during Nicolas Sturgeon's time as First Minister

You have to admire Nicola Sturgeon’s brass neck. Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister is still a significant, if slightly tarnished public figure, so when she makes one of her rare public appearances, people tend to listen to what she has to say.

So it was on Thursday night, when a genteel audience of politics students and academics, alongside a smattering of Edinburgh’s great and good, gathered in Edinburgh University to listen to Sturgeon in conversation with Lord Jim Wallace, former deputy first minister and all-round good guy.

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What ensued was an audacious performance by the MSP for Glasgow Southside. Employing her new speaking voice, much less shrill than when she snarked her way through First Minister’s Questions, she claimed that politics is far more polarised than it was in the past. "The culture, at times, in politics is downright unpleasant. It's downright toxic," said the woman who once dismissed the views of women campaigning against her gender identity reforms as “not valid”.

Nicola Sturgeon has complained Scotland's political culture can be 'downright unpleasant... downright toxic' (Picture: Wattie Cheung/Getty Images)Nicola Sturgeon has complained Scotland's political culture can be 'downright unpleasant... downright toxic' (Picture: Wattie Cheung/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon has complained Scotland's political culture can be 'downright unpleasant... downright toxic' (Picture: Wattie Cheung/Getty Images)

She suggested that Scotland has lost its way “in how to debate things rationally and properly”, clearly forgetting that only last year, she had defamed opponents of gender reform as “transphobic”, adding for good measure, “you will also find they are deeply misogynist, often homophobic, possibly some of them racist as well”.

‘Utter hysterical garbage’

“I detest the Tories and everything they stand for,” she once snarled as First Minister, insulting the hundreds of thousands of people who had voted Conservative in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. How do we fix things, asked the past master at poisonous political discourse on Thursday.

But the worst was still to come. In a classic Sturgeon move, she then asserted a big political lie as the stone cold truth. “I'm not even convinced equal marriage would – certainly not without a much more toxic debate – get there today,” she said, dead pan. This despite the fact there is absolutely no evidence of any public opposition to same-sex marriage, which became law in Scotland in 2014. Quite the opposite in fact, with nearly 80 per cent of people now in favour of it. And the last bastion of Scottish Presbyterianism, the Church of Scotland, voted in favour of allowing its ministers and deacons to celebrate marriages between same-sex couples in 2022.

It is tempting to dismiss Sturgeon’s cynical scaremongering as “absolute bull****”, as one of Scotland’s leading political commentators did on social media after hearing her comments, or “utter hysterical garbage” as Alba MP Neale Hanvey said, but her attempt to stir up yet another divisive culture war requires closing down before it catches fire.

Revelling in discord

The former First Minister is right in her claim that Scotland’s political discourse is broken. She should know. She was instrumental in breaking it. In the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, instead of trying to unite our divided nation, new First Minister Sturgeon stirred up discord.

Indeed, she seemed to revel in it. Even within her own party ranks, she used her considerable political heft to get her own way. She was accused of actively encouraging a culture of abuse against leading parliamentarians such as Joan McAlpine and Joanna Cherry. Their crime? They dared to question Sturgeon’s stance on gender identity theory.

And while her husband Peter Murrell was still SNP chief executive, she closed down any internal discussion on the party’s precarious financial situation, warning its ruling executive committee “just be very careful about suggestions that there are problems with the party's finances because we depend on donors to donate". Murrell was charged in connection with embezzlement of SNP funds only last month.

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But it was during the debate on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill that Sturgeon’s authoritarian tendencies really flourished. Policy analyst Lucy Hunter Blackburn and I have spent the last year gathering stories from women’s rights campaigners about their experience of the toxic political debate around gender that dominated Scotland’s political discourse for five years.

Dismissed as bigots

The result is a book, The Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht, which is published on May 30. In recent days, it has attracted some attention because of several of its high-profile contributors, including author JK Rowling, the aforementioned Joanna Cherry and her erstwhile SNP colleague, Ash Regan MSP. But it is the experience of grassroots women that most powerfully speaks to the reality of political discourse under Sturgeon’s iron rule.

Women lost their hard-won livelihoods, cancelled because their views did not chime with the prevailing orthodoxy as laid down by the First Minister. MSPs refused to meet the survivors of male sexual abuse. Parents, concerned that their children had been convinced by state-funded campaign groups that they had been “born in the wrong body”, were dismissed as bigots.

Leading SNP parliamentarians were photographed in front of placards calling for Terfs – as women’s rights campaigners are dubbed – to be executed. This was the reality of Scotland’s political discourse under Sturgeon. It was toxic, at times downright unpleasant, often threatening.

Does it matter that Scotland’s leading cultural warrior is now trying to reinvent herself as the high priestess of peace and reconciliation? Shouldn’t we give Sturgeon the benefit of the doubt and welcome her apparent conversion to the idea that consensus and civilised debate are essential elements of a healthy democracy?

If only we could. But the evidence damns her. She promoted division in Scotland’s political discourse. She shut down debate within her own party. She tried to silence opposition voices. It’s too late for Sturgeon to re-write history, but it is not too late for Scotland’s political class to learn one simple lesson from her impact on the body politic. Don’t be like Nicola.



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