"She only has herself to blame." Andy Buchanan/ POOL/AFP/Getty Images.

February 17, 2023   5 mins

So it’s goodbye from Nicola Sturgeon. During a relatively expansive press conference on Wednesday — the prolonged duration of which somewhat undermined her claim that she always knows when it’s time to go — she offered the official version of why she was stepping down. No, this was definitely not a response to “short-term pressures” such as the Isla Bryson prison controversy or the ongoing investigation into SNP financial irregularity. As if delivering a shocking revelation to her audience, she confided that the real reason was because she was “a human being”. Politics has more “intensity” and “brutality” these days than it used to, she said, and her heart is no longer in it.

During her address to journalists, the First Minister’s well-honed rhetorical abilities cast their usual spell — broken only during the Q&A, when she was asked about her legacy of a collapsing NHS, widening attainment gaps in literacy and numeracy in schools, and soaring numbers of drug deaths every year. Before that, though, we were firmly in Sturgeonland, where — a bit like being on a Highland distillery tour — reality tends to disappear in a euphoric haze and temporarily everything looks better than it actually is.

Despite plummeting personal approval ratings, she focused several times on consoling those who, she assumed, would be saddened by her departure, giving the impression of trying to avert outpourings of weeping in the streets. Putting an optimistic gloss on the general mediocrity of her party, she implied that for too long she had eclipsed the many talented SNP politicians with her own brilliance, promising that from now on we would be able to see them more clearly. And perhaps most startlingly — fresh from calling critics of her government’s gender law reforms “homophobic” and “racist” only a fortnight ago  —  she noted that, over the years, she had somehow become a lightning rod for “irrationality” in the “tone and tenor of discourse” on controversial areas, and expressed the fervent desire that things be less polarised from now on.

All of this must have been quite enraging for one of the few actually talented individuals left in the SNP, Joanna Cherry. Cherry is well-known for disagreeing with the party line on gender law reform in favour of self-identification, arguing that it will harm women’s and lesbians’ rights. In 2021, on the same day that an SNP supporter sent her violent sexualised threats for which he was later convicted, Cherry was sacked from her Westminster front-bench role, apparently for her opposition to self-ID. You don’t get much more “intensity” and “brutality” in politics than that.

Equally, Sturgeon’s new turn as a pacifist in the culture wars must have been hard for Joan McAlpine to hear. She was a highly successful MSP for a decade, but was viciously ostracised in 2019 for expressing reservations about the conflation of sex and gender identity in the Scottish Census. She was eventually pushed out of politics via a gerrymandered party rule change that some suspected was deliberately designed to oust her.

Sturgeon did nothing at the time to reduce toxicity in the party with respect to Cherry and McAlpine, even when SNP MPs were openly describing the pair as hateful for views about self-ID which — it now turns out — most of the Scottish population share. Quite the contrary: she frequently turned the heat up, via the regular delivery of public statements of support for transactivist causes that could easily be read as green lights for others to carry on smearing. Right up until the moment a fortnight ago when the First Minister was left havering on ITV about whether Isla Bryson is or is not a woman, she tended to present any dissent towards the “trans women are women” mantra as the product of confused or malicious thinking. When a headteacher publicly sides with the school bullies, she might as well have declared open season on their victims.

It was also Sturgeon’s government that funded one of the main engines of transactivist insanity in Scotland and the UK more generally, the Scottish Trans Alliance (now Scottish Trans). Effectively, they paid this organisation and its parent charity, Equality Network, to tell them what to think on trans issues, and then obediently did exactly what they were told — including pushing for self-ID, and dismissing all objections to it as hateful.

In 2016, then-director James Morton told the Women and Equalities Select Committee that rape crisis and domestic violence services for women should admit males self-identifying as women, and should work to “educate” any traumatised female service-users who complained — a point that was uncritically incorporated into committee’s final report. And in 2018, Morton wrote about how his government-funded organisation had deliberately influenced the Scottish Prison Service to introduce males into female prisons, reasoning that introducing self-ID in these “very challenging circumstances” would put pressure on other public services to adopt it too. And — factually at least, though not ethically — he was right.

So, for Sturgeon to pose at the press conference on Wednesday as some kind of throwback to the Scottish Enlightenment, urging that “debates should be rational” and that “Scotland should be capable of having them”, may well count as the most brass-necked reverse ferret of her long career. She is certainly no Thomas Reid or Dugald Stewart, two 18th-century philosophers closely associated with the Scottish school of common-sense realism, and who each emphasised the importance of trusting one’s senses and guarding against paradox. For the policy of self-ID is manifestly a failure on both counts.

Never mind that — despite an apparently shared interest in witch-burning, Sturgeon doesn’t even reach the fairly low bar for public rationality set by Presbyterian founder and general miserabilist John Knox. Knox may have been fond of ducking-stools, stocks, and pillories, but at least he thought that people should interpret biblical texts for themselves, without the interposition of priests in funny robes spouting incomprehensible jargon.

Partly thanks to Knox and the high levels of literacy he encouraged in schoolchildren for Bible-reading purposes, Scottish culture has a long and justly famed tradition of valuing independent thinking. There is a rejection of closed hierarchies of power, and a habit of nose-thumbing authority figures. Outward appearances of prestige are supposed to mean little, and the lowliest and poorest member of society is thought equal to the most powerful and well-connected. “A man’s a man for a’ that,” Robert Burns famously told us. “Trans women are women,” piped the incongruent refrain from Sturgeon. To prove it, she put violent, unstable murderers and paedophiles into close living arrangements with impoverished, abused females. And then she left them to get on with it.

Politicians are generally good at rewriting history. In the general Great Forgetting which, I assume, will follow the eventual Great Resetting on gender policies towards something more sensible, the SNP may well feign collective amnesia about their former glorious leader’s role in helping discourse in Scotland on trans matters become as vicious and divided as it could possibly be. For all I know, Sturgeon might be about to announce her appointment as a Visiting Professor of Public Reason at Strathclyde Uni, or something. Stranger things have happened. So just in case — and as the woman herself might say — let me be very clear.

Over the course of her leadership, Sturgeon has presided over a closed system of mutual backscratching between her government and favoured courtier-transactivists, paying them to tell her and her government what to think. She has helped shut down free and lawful public discussion of their demands, enabled the unjust monstering of their critics, and sat silently watching as eminently capable women in her own party suffer unconscionable bullying and smearing from others within the party for dissenting.

Even worse, while posing as both feminist and socialist, she monomaniacally has put the vested interests of a small group of privileged, university-educated activists over the interests of huge swathes of ordinary Scottish women, including many who are vulnerable and traumatised by violence and sexual abuse. And she has apparently done this for what she foolishly believed would be political gain.

Nicola Sturgeon may well be — in fact, obviously is — a human being. But she’s a hypocritical and callous one. She’s right to say that Scottish politics has become more intense and brutal, but she only has herself to blame.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.