The First Minister attached herself to the wrong issue
It is too early to know what damage Nicola Sturgeon’s trans position has caused the SNP — and, by extension, independence. Scots have forgiven her in the past, but this time things are different.
New UnHerd polling shows that, on practically every trans issue, the most ‘trans-sceptical’ constituencies are now found in Scotland. In fact, across the board, Scottish people are more trans-sceptical than English people, with a larger proportion of them disagreeing with statements including ‘It should be made easier for transgender people to change legal gender’ and ‘Transgender women should be allowed to use spaces reserved for women, such as women’s toilets or changing rooms’.
Where did it all go wrong?
Sturgeon has long been embarrassed by the regressive connotations of nationalism (she even dislikes the name ‘Scottish National Party’). She would like to be an internationalist, but can hardly do so while wanting to put an international border between Gretna and Berwick. If the parts of the UK cannot bear to live together, how can international groupings like the EU or the UN?
To compensate for the regressive element at the heart of the independence movement, Sturgeon wanted to make Scotland the most progressive part of the UK. Politically, this made some sense: Scotland remains solidly Left-wing and SNP policies on free university tuition, free prescriptions and free eye tests were popular (especially because the English had to pay for these things).
But the SNP’s attempt to change hate crime laws was less popular — not least because of the associated free speech concerns. Still, the SNP was able to push through this legislation because even if their voters disagreed, it came secondary to the independence cause.
The same was initially the case with the trans issue. There was not much in the way of a backlash when transgender identity was declared a protected characteristic in relation to hate crime. But as Sturgeon went further and further, particularly on gender self-ID, she began to lose support. This came to a head with her decision to allow trans rapists into female prisons — a decision that has now been reversed.
Sturgeon did not think that her transgender stance would win her votes, but she did not believe it would lose them either. Steadily, however, that support started to erode, before hitting rock bottom during the prison self-ID debacle.
Sturgeon may be regretting that she invested so much political capital in the trans issue. She hoped that Westminster blocking her law would anger Scots. Instead, Scots began to pay attention when they associated SNP laws on gender with rapists in women’s spaces.
It may not be enough to completely derail the SNP and its central cause, but this is a major setback. If Sturgeon goes, there is no one obvious to replace her nor lead the campaign for independence. The likely beneficiary is Scottish Labour, which if it can restore some of its previous backing can put independence beyond the SNP’s reach. However, the Party’s position on trans issues isn’t much more sensible.
Throughout her period in office, Sturgeon has believed that she is invincible. This time, however, she could well be proved devastatingly wrong.