Photo by Ken Jack/Getty Images

A very seditious scarf

Nicola Sturgeon’s culture of intolerance

Artillery Row

Something untoward happened in the Scottish Parliament on the morning of Tuesday, 15 November 2022. A middle-aged professional woman — an upstanding citizen her whole life, not particularly political but always a voter — was thrown out of a committee hearing. 

The Parliament’s security guards ordered her to leave the meeting, which was considering amendments to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, not because she was waving a banner, or even sniggering at some of the committee’s more banal comments. She was wearing a scarf. It was a knitted scarf with green, white and purple stripes — the colours that came to signify a suffrage movement that began in August 1832, when Mary Smith from Yorkshire, through the MP Henry Hunt, presented a petition to the UK parliament calling for women’s right to vote.

There is no record of Mary being thrown out of Westminster for having the temerity to make her demand, but it did take nearly another 100 years — and hordes of courageous women — before that campaign was won. 

Nicola Sturgeon soldiered on with her controversial legislation

Scotland’s ruling political elite seem determined to snuff out this latest women’s rights movement before it can achieve its aim, which is to inject some common sense and reality into the debate about gender ideology. 

The Scottish government is in the process of steering a bill through parliament that will allow people over the age of 16 to change their legal sex by simple declaration — self-ID — the holy grail of the transgender movement, which believes that biological sex is irrelevant and only “feelings” should dictate a person’s gender identity. 

Two years ago, as women’s minister, Liz Truss dropped plans for a similar scheme in England. Instead, she cut the cost of applying for a gender recognition certificate and increased support for trans healthcare. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon soldiered on with her controversial legislation, despite growing opposition. 

Concerns by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission were repeatedly dismissed. The First Minister sneered that women’s views were “not valid”. Disquiet among SNP MSPs was ignored as Sturgeon and her new government partners, the Scottish Greens, stuck to their Stonewall-approved script. 

A few hours after @obsolesence, as she is known on Twitter, was unceremoniously thrown out of the equalities committee — chaired by another Sturgeon loyalist, Joe Fitzpatrick — the Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone was forced to make an apology to the Parliament. 

“The action taken was an error and I want to apologise on behalf of the Parliament,” she said, blaming, it seemed, a misguided security guard for the incident. 

Leading SNP MP Joanna Cherry spoke for many when she tweeted, “I don’t think the security staff who made this decision should bear sole responsibility. An underlying political culture typified by the #NoDebate lobby and a new misogyny which has been allowed to flourish is what’s at fault. It’s time to address this problem.” 

Cherry — no friend of the First Minister’s — has been an outspoken critic of her party’s plans to introduce self ID, and her career has suffered as a result. A brilliant lawyer, she was dumped as the party’s justice spokesperson in Westminster for her refusal to toe the party’s line on gender ideology. Since then she has become, along with author JK Rowling and former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, the face of the women’s rights campaign in Scotland. 

She was right to point out that there is something even more rotten in the state of Scotland than an attack on women’s sex-based rights. There is a growing political culture that brooks no dissent. At the heart of it, her lips pursed, gathering her wrath, sits the self-identified Lord Protector of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. 

The majority remain silent, fearful for their job and their reputation

As I wrote in the Scotsman newspaper in June this year, Scotland’s once proud — and chippy — civil society has been reduced to a small but powerful elite that offers Sturgeon and her government unconditional support in exchange for an illusion of influence and a three-year grant. 

Sturgeon also presides over a cowed civil service, whose default position is “Yes, First Minister”. Government is no longer about policy development and delivery, but about messaging, with nearly 200 PR specialists employed to track dissent on social media as well as issue the line of the day. The parliament increasingly sees its role as not to scrutinise, but to cheerlead ministers. 

It’s all too easy — and predictable — to retreat to George Orwell when trying to explain creeping authoritarianism, but there is no other writer who understood emotional nationalism better than he. In a letter explaining why he wrote 1984, he described how in totalitarian societies, objective truth has to be disbelieved and facts made to fit the words and prophecies of an infallible leader. 

Nicola Sturgeon is no dictator, she’s not even a Trump, but she is an emotional nationalist, whose primary political objective is to leave the UK, no matter the cost. It seems the price we Scots have to pay is blind obedience to the First Minister’s chosen cause, whether it’s independence or gender ideology. 

Those who question the economic and social cost of independence — or are sceptical that a man really can change his sex by filling in a form — risk censure, ridicule or worse. Little wonder that some Scots have enthusiastically joined Sturgeon’s New Model Army, grateful for the crumbs swept off the cabinet table in Bute House. 

The majority, however, remain silent, fearful for their job and their reputation. More than one senior person in business and the public sector has told me, “It’s simply not worth speaking out.” 

This is the underlying political culture that Joanna Cherry fears has infected her country. The evidence bears her out. Scotland — the home of the European enlightenment — has become a country where even the act of wearing a scarf is viewed as seditious. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover