By ignoring opposition to “gender ideology” the govt is making the same mistake it did with the hated named person policy
On Wednesday, the Scottish government announced that it will be taking the UK government to court over its block on controversial Holyrood legislation designed to liberalise the process for changing legal sex. The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill was halted in January this year, before receiving Royal Assent, after UK ministers triggered a Section 35 order – a provision in the Scotland Act that permits a Westminster government to veto Holyrood proposals that could “modify” or “have an adverse effect on” the law as it applies to reserved matters.
For SNP ministers, going to court is about ‘defending Scottish democracy’. Scotland’s social justice secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said invoking Section 35 was “an unprecedented challenge” to Holyrood’s ability to legislate which risks setting a “dangerous precedent”. Rishi Sunak says his government acted on “careful and considered” legal advice that raised “concerns about the operation of the Equality Act” and “the protection of women elsewhere in the UK”. The stage is set for a complex court battle that will go on for some time.
Legal mechanisms are not the primary concern among Scots when it comes to the gender bill. Two in three people in Scotland oppose what it is trying to do outright. Its central plank – self-declaration of legal sex from the age of 16 without any real gate keeping – is thought to be a threat to women and children. Attempting to enshrine self-ID in law triggered large-scale public demonstrations outside the Scottish parliament, and schisms within its walls. A record rebellion took place on SNP back benches and continued into the recent leadership contest.
‘Legal mechanisms are not the primary concern Scots have about the gender bill’
For Humza Yousaf’s new administration – dubbed a “continuity” government by pundits – defending the gender bill is also about repledging fealty to Scotland’s socially progressive clique, who occupy the ascendancy of Scotland’s political establishment, mainstream media, and third sector. Yousaf positioned himself as the “progressive” candidate during his leadership bid, and he’s doubling down. The move could be costly either way. As former first minister Alex Salmond observed, if Yousaf loses the case he will be humiliated by Westminster, and if he wins it, he loses with the public, most of whom oppose the GRR Bill.
The gender bill is a focal point of debate but there are deeper, connected issues at play in Scotland. The bill is based on an ideological framework now deeply embedded in the apparatus of the Scottish state which is anathema to most Scots. The contention that underpins the legislation – that human beings can be “born in the wrong body” as one of an infinite number of “gender identities” that must be affirmed socially, and asserted physically through irreversible medical interventions – is contested, to say the least. Many experts warn that the endorsement of this idea by medics, educationalists, and lawmakers is seriously harming people.
Just hours after the gender bill legal action was announced, public opposition to the government’s agenda was on show in Dundee. Around seventy people, including teachers, academics, parents, and members of Dundee’s Christian and Muslim communities attended a panel discussion on “gender ideology” between a paediatrician, a social worker, a columnist, and former deputy leader of the SNP Jim Sillars. The event, which required a police presence and private security due to a counter protest by trans activists, was organised by the Scottish Union for Education (SUE), a new group that intends to mount a nation-wide campaign to “bring common sense” back into schools.
‘Defending the gender bill is also about repledging fealty to Scotland’s socially progressive clique’
Activists portray SUE as “bigoted” and “transphobic”. This claim is hard to evidence based on the event on Wednesday – a measured critique of contentious ideas in education and the caring professions. Dr Jenny Cunningham, a retired Community Paediatrician, expressed concern that the “social transitioning” of children is encouraging them down a harmful pathway. She said government schools’ guidance on trans issues was drafted by activists and predicated on “quasi-scientific” evidence. She also accused policymakers in Scotland of ignoring a “huge expansion in teenage girls being referred for ‘trans treatments’” and said vulnerable children with autism and low self-esteem are particularly at risk.
Maggie Mellon, an independent social worker and member of the Sex Matters Advisory Group, spoke of a “climate of fear” that has seen teachers, doctors, and social workers she knows “disciplined” for raising professional concerns. She said, “protecting children from harm has become secondary” and warned that children are being turned against their parents as lessons imply their “parents are stupid” for believing that sex is a “physical reality”. Criticising professional organisations, she said: “This is being sold as a children’s rights issue, but children don’t have the right to choose things they have no idea about the consequences of”.
Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the SNP, set Scottish educational priorities in a global context. Mr Sillars warned that in the West, “our intellectual capacity, our character, is being hollowed out by an ideology”. “Too many people who should know better have caved to a minority asking us to accept the absurd proposition that it is hard to define a woman”. Referring to Scotland’s proud enlightenment tradition, he added that disallowing critical thinking is putting young Westerners at a disadvantage when, as adults, they’ll have to navigate a “maze of political and philosophical ideas that are unprecedented”. “Enlightenment dies in the shadow, the deep shadow, of a lie. That is no place to lay down the heads of our children”.
‘Enlightenment dies in the shadow, the deep shadow, of a lie. That is no place to lay down the heads of our children’Jim Sillars
The government is failing to answer very real, and well-evidenced concerns about the ideology it has wedded itself to – concerns shared by a plethora of groups, professionals and members of the public. The alarm felt by parents is palpable. Attendees of the SUE event expressed anger about the subject matter children are encountering in state schools. Their concern was significant enough to have brought them out to a public event, and Dundee is only one small corner of Scotland. In communities across the country, similar disquiet is manifesting. SUE will find fertile ground if it intends to fund-raise, and galvanise opposition.
Scotland’s government has hitherto been dismissive of those who don’t assent to new orthodoxies. It brooks no criticism of the gender bill, and wider policies in the same vein. In doing this, it is storing up trouble for itself. Just a few years ago, a nationwide campaign emerged against the Named Person scheme – another deeply unpopular policy ministers accepted no criticism about. The ‘state snooper’ policy also impacted on education and family life, and spurred a great deal of resentment among the public. Ignoring concerns eventually led to legal and political humiliation for the SNP.
Ministers would be well-advised to listen to the public on “gender ideology” now, or they’ll face an almighty backlash in years to come.
This article was first published in The Times Scotland on Friday 14 April 2023