My father once told me that, when he was in his position as President of the National Farmers Union and genuinely unsure about an issue, he’d mentally transport himself back to a kitchen table in an Orkney farmhouse, where he used to chew the fat with a family from that county. And he’d ask himself: this thing I’m about to do – will it make their everyday existence better or worse? It struck me then, as now, as an excellent way to navigate through any difficult issue.
So. The Gender Reform Act.
For once, I genuinely don’t know.
It’s been going on for so long – six years? – that I probably ran out of bandwidth on it a while ago. It honestly feels like one of those agendas that become the talk of the Holyrood steamie but didn’t really register amongst the wider public – or even party activists. I don’t like saying this, because I have no idea what life is like for Trans people and I’m by nature sympathetic to anything that makes anyone’s life easier, especially if it does no harm to anyone else, but it does feel that the bill has divided the party and sapped it of energy. And I wonder if the tone of the debate would have been better if it had been put forward as a private members bill – like the one about assisted dying that Liam MacArthur launched in September and which gained respect across the chamber. I’m not a member of Liam’s party, but fair play to him. I was privileged to be in parliament that day, and if you didn’t walk a wee bit taller after watching folk from all parties pledge their support to this most humane of acts then, honestly, I can’t help you. This was Scottish democracy at its best, a tantalising glimpse of what we could be if only we had the courage to be the country and the people we tell ourselves we are.
I find myself thinking that when you get someone like Joanna Cherry opposing it then it’s probably worth pausing before proclaiming the vote as a great leap for humanity. That said, given the noise around it at the time, It’s tempting to see the parallels with the repeal of Section 28 from back in the day. Within a few years, the repeal was seen by most as the progressive move it was claimed to be by its advocates at the time. And only time will tell what the consequences of the GRA are, good, bad or indifferent. But that goes for any bill.
The difficulty is as always identifying the genuine objections from the more prejudicial stuff that you get online. Ideally, you want an environment where people can genuinely articulately express their concerns without being labelled a bigot. And I’m not sure that was achieved – although I felt Nicola Sturgeon handled the debate pretty well. She reads the room better than just about anyone.
But what caught my attention more than the bill itself was the Westminster reaction to it.
In the same week that Rishi Sunak tellingly failed to guarantee that Scotland’s wish to continue to subscribe to the Human Rights Act would be respected, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, has threatened to block the bill at the Royal Assent stage. Yesterday, his boss suggested the same.
Whatever the merits of the bill, the biggest “take-home” from this week is that power devolved is power retained, that our executive powers are lent, not given, and that a party we haven’t voted for since 1955 retains the right to thwart the democratic wishes of our elected parliament, even in devolved areas. It’s a clear message that the establishment’s instincts are hard-wired towards centralism, and that they’d really rather there was no devolution at all. The best you can say about them is that they’ve stopped pretending otherwise. Which poses an obvious question. Who speaks for Scotland? And what shall we do about it?
It’s a reminder that it’s only the securing of our independence that allows us to, finally, have a parliament that is permanent and which truly represents the will of its sovereign people.
As we approach a new year, the message is simple.
Time to bring our democracy home.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.
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