UK gender battle stirs talk of independence in Scotland

Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom nine years ago, but a new cultural conflict with London has restarted a heated debate.

Trans rights protestors in London
Transgender rights supporters protest in favour of a Scottish gender reform bill, in London, the United Kingdom [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Glasgow, Scotland – Heather Herbert is happier now than at any other point in her life.

The 47-year-old trans woman, who moved to Scotland’s northeast from her birthplace of Leicester, England, around a decade ago, transitioned in 2015.

It was a decision she arrived at after “a lot of soul searching”.

“I’ve always felt like a girl – or a woman – more than a male,” Herbert told Al Jazeera. “But I just didn’t have the words for it back when I was younger.”

When she first heard the term “transgender”, it was shrouded in negative connotations – “that trans people were weirdos and strange … and all the other negative words you can think of” – and it was only after meeting others with similar experiences that she finally saw she was not alone.

Trans rights protest
Transgender rights supporters protest in favour of a Scottish gender reform bill outside Downing Street in London, the United Kingdom [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

The web developer has undergone hormone therapy and electrolysis, and is currently waiting for gender-affirming surgery.

But like others from Scotland’s transgender community, Herbert has been following the eruption of a long-simmering gender debate that has left the Scottish government and the British government at loggerheads.

Gender recognition bill

In December, lawmakers in the devolved Scottish Parliament voted to pass the Gender Recognition Bill by 86 votes to 39, paving the way for trans people in Scotland to more easily change their legally recognised gender.

On January 16, however, the British government vetoed the bill, citing a conflict with the UK Equality Act.

That decision – which marked the first time UK ministers used a so-called Section 35 order to block a piece of legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament – was met with fury by Scotland’s nationalist First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon, the left-of-centre leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), labelled the move by the pro-union Conservative government of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a “full-frontal attack”, exposing yet another constitutional fault line between Edinburgh and London.

Herbert, an active campaigner for the pro-independence Scottish Green Party, which has a power-sharing arrangement with the SNP government at the Scottish Parliament, echoed Sturgeon’s view.

“In a way, the Gender Recognition Bill is a perfect gift to the Conservatives,” she said. “They get to attack both LGBTQ+ people, Scotland and the Scottish government all in one move.”

For Herbert, and many others in Scotland’s trans community today, the personal is the political.

Trans rights protestors in London
Transgender rights supporters demonstrate on Downing Street in London, the UK [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

But this cross-border clash between the two administrations comes hot on the heels of the UK government’s ongoing refusal to grant the Scottish government the right to hold a second independence referendum, following the first such vote in 2014, which saw Scots reject sovereignty by 55-45 percent.

This decision was endorsed last November by the highest court in the land after Scotland’s first minister referred the dispute to the UK Supreme Court.

Indeed, despite an SNP-Green independence-supporting majority in the Scottish Parliament, and the SNP’s repeated electoral wins, judges last year ruled that any such poll held without Westminster’s consent would be unlawful.

Yet while unionists who voted for the Gender Recognition Bill in the Scottish Parliament remain implacably opposed to Scottish independence, this did not stop some from speaking out against the British government’s intervention.

Scottish Labour Party parliamentarian Monica Lennon, who, like most of her Labour colleagues in the Edinburgh parliament, voted in favour of the gender bill, described London’s actions as a “cynical and dangerous power move by an out-of-control UK government”.

As supporters of gender reform in Scotland lick their wounds, critics of the legislation, who voiced concerns that making it easier for a man to transition into a woman could threaten the safety of women-only spaces, feel vindicated.

And while the Scottish government plans its next move, pro-union supporters of the bill are pleased that Westminster’s intervention has re-asserted the UK government’s constitutional dominance.

“Luckily we have the safeguards of the UK, and I think this has … reaffirmed people’s faith in the union,” said Alastair Redman, a one-time Scottish Conservative Party member, who now sits as an independent councillor for Scotland’s Argyll and Bute Council, and who has always opposed the bill.

“[In the form of the UK government] we have the checks and balances to prevent the excesses of the Scottish government who have lost the plot and gone mad with power quite frankly,” he told Al Jazeera.

That these events are seen in Scotland through the prism of the constitution is not surprising.

Scotland, the UK’s second-largest constituent nation, has been gripped by the independence question since its historic referendum nine years ago.

Today, opinion polls often reveal an electorate split down the middle.

As such, this most recent point of rancour between the two governments was always likely to fan the flames of feeling on both sides of the constitutional debate, not least among the voting public.

One such voter, Fiona McKenzie, who works in marketing in Aberdeen, a city on Scotland’s North Sea coast, told Al Jazeera that the dispute has made her “think seriously about how Scotland fits within the UK politically and constitutionally”.

“As someone who has sat on the fence about independence for some time, I believe this might be the ‘straw’ that tips the balance for me,” said McKenzie, 43, who personally supported the gender bill.

“It just feels like Scotland is not being treated respectfully, and that we are being ultimately governed by people who are aloof and not willing to engage with us on a meaningful level. If we were talking about a marriage, I’d say separation and divorce were now looking more likely on grounds of estrangement.”

Source: Al Jazeera