Our weak political class shows us the need for a new Scottish Enlightenment - Susan Dalgety

As politicians in Scotland run scared of free speech and good, robust debate, Scotland falters, argues Susan Dalgety.

I was asked a pertinent question earlier this week. During yet another discussion about gender ideology, someone said, “I am not suggesting these things don’t matter, they do. But nearly 25 per cent of Scottish children live in poverty. We should consider what takes up time in politics.”

He gave me pause for thought. This week alone, the Scottish government’s flagship recycling scheme – designed to help meet its ambitious net zero targets – collapsed in disarray. Businesses, from corner shops to global corporations, have been left out of pocket after investing in equipment for an unworkable scheme. And the debacle has, once again, exposed the deep rift between governments in Edinburgh and London, one that may suit narrow party interests but damages Scotland.

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A few days ago, an expert in domestic abuse told STV that more must be done to protect women from their violent partners. Last year, nine women were murdered by their partner – one death every six weeks.

On the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith, Scotland's politicians would do well to remember the core principles of the economist and philosopher. PIC: Contributed.On the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith, Scotland's politicians would do well to remember the core principles of the economist and philosopher. PIC: Contributed.
On the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith, Scotland's politicians would do well to remember the core principles of the economist and philosopher. PIC: Contributed.

Meanwhile, figures published this week by the End Child Poverty Coalition reveal that a quarter of Scottish children live in poverty. Even in a rich city like Edinburgh, nearly 20 per cent of children are suffering. And in our biggest city, Glasgow, the figure is around a third.

I could go on. Islanders are cut off from the mainland as the lifeline ferry system collapses. Our NHS seems unable to heal itself, struggling to recover from the pandemic. Our working-age population is about to go into decline. By 2027-28, tax receipts will be 3.5 per cent less than the Scottish Government’s spending commitments. Scotland is in danger of not working.

Yet, as my interlocutor pointed out, much of the political discourse in our country currently focuses not on how to increase productivity, fix the NHS or close the education attainment gap, but on whether a woman can have a penis.

On the positive side, the transgender debate – sparked off by the Scottish government’s determination to introduce self-ID – has given birth to a vigorous and growing women’s movement across Scotland. And, unlike the rest of the UK, where critics of gender reform are drawn mainly from academia, law and the media, here it is ‘ordinary’ women who lead the campaign. Women who discovered their political voice during the 2014 referendum, others who are staunch defenders of the United Kingdom and many who, until now, had never done a political act in their life, yet are now willing to break the law or risk their livelihood, so strong are their feelings about the issue.

But what this grassroots campaign has also done is expose the inadequacy of Scotland’s political class. Whether through sheer stupidity or malice aforethought, MSPs and government ministers have contemptuously ignored public opinion, dismissing the women campaigners as bigots and refusing to engage with them on the substantive issues around gender reform.

And it is not just the SNP and their partners, the Scottish Greens, who are guilty of closing down debate. Earlier this week, Pauline McNeill, a highly respected Labour politician, was forced to withdraw from a meeting she had helped organise about the Equality Act following a formal complaint that, because the event was being held during Pride month, it appeared to be “a deliberate attack on trans people and their allies”. A charge that in 2023 is akin to an allegation of racism, and, if upheld, could potentially destroy McNeill’s career.

The anonymous attack is reminiscent of McCarthyism – “Are you now or have you ever been a bigot, Ms McNeill?” – and the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, should have dismissed the vexatious complaint immediately, and agreed to attend the meeting himself. Instead, there has been a stony silence from the Labour leadership, leaving McNeill exposed. But perhaps even worse is the message that this incident sends about the state of Scottish politics.

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The meeting, which McNeill organised with former SNP minister Ash Regan, is to discuss the definition of sex under the 2010 Equality Act in light of self-ID and the recent judgement in the Court of Session that a person’s legal sex was not limited to their biology. A similar event took place in Westminster on Thursday night and passed by without incident, yet here in Scotland the topic is deemed not suitable for discussion.

This is why the gender ideology debate matters. If our politicians are not confident enough to resist the authoritarian tendencies within our body politic, and instead are content to close down free speech on a topic as straightforward as biological sex, then what hope do we have that they possess the intellect and stamina to tackle child poverty or climate change? Or even fix the NHS?

But 300 years after Adam Smith’s birth, do I detect a glimmer of hope in Holyrood? A display of critical thinking even? During a debate on Wednesday to mark the philosopher’s anniversary, secured by SNP MSP Michelle Thompson, several women MSPs emphasised Smith’s core argument that free speech is crucial to economic and social progress.

Tory MSP Pam Gosal reminded her colleagues that the Scottish Enlightenment was characterised by open inquiry and the free exchange of ideas, “which is almost contrary to the direction in which we seem to be headed as a society now,” she concluded.

And Ash Regan said that the Enlightenment had taught us of the need for debate, even to offend, adding, “We need to base our thinking – our critical thinking – on facts and also on science, which is a sentiment that Smith expressed very much. I think there is immense value in robust debate, that clash of competing opinions that benefits society and governments.”

A basic lesson in good governance that our political leaders appear to have skipped, to all our detriment. Time for a new Scottish Enlightenment?