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Two Birds, One Stone: Scotland’s Rushed Gender Bill Is a Push for Independence

Original illustration by Su Yun Song '24, an Illustration major at RISD.

Scotland has recently been making headlines. The Scottish government has become embroiled in an extremely political conflict with London regarding its assertive blocking of the passing of Scotland’s latest gender bill. The gender bill would make it easier for transgender people in Scotland to change their legal gender, as it removes the requirement for a psychiatric diagnosis and reduces the age limit for being eligible for a gender recognition certificate from 18 to 16. 

The bill has been the subject of much controversy: Opponents like J.K. Rowling claim that it threatens the safety of women in single-sex spaces, and it has faced criticism from left-leaning UK politicians from whom many expected unequivocal support. Even though the bill is supposedly aimed at a progressive cause, the Scottish National Party’s refusal to respond to criticism from activists and the UK government’s offer to negotiate around the bill hints that the SNP is as much concerned with using the bill to strengthen claims of Scotland’s divergent identity from the UK as with the social issues at stake. However, the SNP’s uncompromising political tactics have proven themselves to be self-defeating, leading to the unraveling of both the bill and the party’s pro-independence agenda.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) first rose to prominence in 1974, when it won popular support due to its radical criticism of British control of Scottish affairs. It continued its campaign for independence and was instrumental in the 1997 devolution referendum and the creation of the Scottish Parliament. In 2007, the SNP won a majority vote in Scotland, ending 50 years of Labour dominance; its main campaign promise was to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. In 2014, such a referendum took place. To the SNP’s disappointment, 55 percent of the population voted “no” on independence. After this failure, Nicola Sturgeon took over the SNP and led the party to a huge victory in the 2015 UK general election, where it jumped from representing six Scottish constituencies to 56. Throughout the tremendous rise of the party that followed, the SNP maintained its promotion of independence, with Sturgeon announcing her intention to hold a second referendum. 

The SNP’s latest priority has been the new gender bill. While many activists have hailed Sturgeon for pushing for a progressive gender bill, their claims do not seem to be cognizant of the realities of Scotland’s political landscape. Looking at the polls in which 60 percent and 66 percent of Scotland disagreed with the removal of the medical diagnosis and the change in age limit, it is clear that the SNP proposal has paid little heed to what the general population actually wants. Instead of consulting with the Scottish public, the government decided to politicize the narrative surrounding the bill. In the process, they showed little regard for the concerns that many women’s groups in Scotland have about how the new bill will affect same-sex spaces. 

Despite the SNP’s insistence that the law will in no way affect women’s rights, their promise was contradicted by a recent incident where Isla Bryson, an offender guilty of raping two women, was briefly held in the women’s prison in Scotland. While Bryson was soon reassigned to a male facility, many suspect that Bryson faked being trans. This incident is the very culmination of women’s fears that men will exploit the law to enter female-only spaces. In fact, a legion of women marched in Glasgow to protest against the bill—an indication that the public is deeply divided about the issue. 

The prison incident also proves that Sturgeon’s campaign failed to clearly account for how women’s rights can be protected alongside trans rights. This does not mean that the basis of the bill is, as many conservatives argue, inherently problematic, but it does indicate that a more nuanced conversation about the intricacies of the legislation is needed. Trans people face many difficulties while trying to change their gender, so it must be acknowledged that the bill tackles a timely and important issue. But why the rush to pass it without any discussion or amendments? It seems there are ulterior motives at play. The SNP’s unwillingness to take the concerns voiced by women’s rights activists seriously suggests they are obscuring a broader agenda that subtly seeks to directly challenge the UK. 

Currently, the UK government is in a dreadful standoff with Scotland. At first glance, it suggests that the UK is deliberately seizing control of Scotland’s political affairs. But the situation is more complex than that. Many activists are enraged by the UK’s decision to invoke Section 35 (an order under the Scotland Act that can be invoked by the UK Secretary of State when a law has the potential to have an adverse effect on reserved matters that fall under the jurisdiction of the UK Parliament) to block the gender referendum. 

Additionally, the Scottish government’s inability to engage in political compromise has emerged as a major cause of legal conflict. The Scottish Secretary Alister Jack—who handles UK’s affairs with regard to Scotland and vice versa— released a statement that highlighted the importance of recognizing trans people’s rights and needs. Jack also said that while the law threatens UK’s current equality laws, he and the UK are open to working on an amended bill. This suggests that the UK, while not completely behind the bill, is open to negotiation about self-identification in a way that could be more considerate of the safety of women. Even the Labour Party leader in the UK, Keir Starmer, went against his Scottish counterparts by arguing that 16-year-olds are too young to legally decide their gender identity. Moreover, there were also legitimate concerns regarding the bill clashing with UK’s general equality laws, given that a person could potentially be identified differently in Scotland versus in the UK through the differing criteria for the Gender Recognition Certificates (GRCs). 

Yet, Sturgeon and many others chose to label this a classic “Tory reactionary move,” arguing that it weakened devolution. Scotland saw it as an attack on its autonomy, criticizing the UK for turning the trans rights issue into a political weapon. But while the UK’s invocation of Section 35—a legal control used for the first time since Scotland’s devolution act of 1997— certainly seem to be an act of political escalation, the SNP’s aggressive stance and lack of flexibility in even discussing possible amendments combined with its pro-independence history suggests that it could be accused of the same thing. It is hard to believe that Sturgeon and her party did not anticipate some form of UK’s opposition to such a divisive law. Instead, their refusal to negotiate and their insistence on taking the fight to the courts (on the grounds that the UK blocking the bill challenged their democracy) hints at a deeper reason for the bill than just concerns for trans rights—a desire to prove that the UK’s political workings are different from Scotland’s, which, in turn, will boost their pro-independence argument.

But if that was the SNP’s plan, it has not been very successful due to Sturgeon’s unwillingness to build an internal consensus within her own party. Her surprise resignation is indicative of how precarious the party’s public image is and how its political inflexibility has led to turmoil. SNP’s rising star Ash Regan resigned rather than vote for the bill, and the bill’s passing came at a time when the other potential SNP opponent to it, Kate Forbes, was on maternity leave. Ash Regan had urged the government not to rush into a decision, stating that she was not against the bill but was concerned about the effects it could have on the well-being of women. If only Sturgeon and her supporters had held off on the voting and instead concentrated their efforts on modifying the legal provisions the bill had for women, it might not have led to such a dramatic standoff with Britain. But with the SNP’s history of challenging the UK, it is not a stretch to imagine that at least some in the party may have intended for the standoff to occur. 

As a result of these highly-publicized disputes, the issue of trans-rights—the crux of the bill—tends to become overshadowed by the larger question of Scotland’s devolution and future political trajectory. Perhaps this is what the SNP wants. After all, while the 2014 referendum saw Scotland voting to stay a part of the UK, the majority of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the EU. As a result, SNP’s claims that Brexit might have changed views has some weight (although recent surveys still show that 54 percent of Scotland wishes to remain part of the UK). The disagreement with the UK on the gender-bill may have provided it with a perfect opportunity to show how Scotland, as a nation, is different from the UK. That does not mean that the SNP is unconcerned about gender rights, but if it was their main priority, they would have been willing to consider all the possible implications of the bill for women and been more open to reaching a middle ground with the UK government. However, the moment for change has passed. Due to unpopularity regarding the bill and a series of other issues, Sturgeon has resigned—pushing back discussions on trans rights as well any hope for a second referendum for independence from the UK by five years according to senior SNP members who claim that a new independence referendum can only take place after the Holyrood election in 2026. 

If the SNP aimed to kill two birds with one stone—advance trans rights in Scotland and increase the popularity of its independence campaign—it has accomplished neither. In fact, the SNP’s stubborn and uncompromising promotion of the bill, particularly in the aftermath of Sturgeon’s resignation, has led to Scottish politics becoming more tumultuous than ever.