A trans-rights culture war is overshadowing the Scottish independence debate
Alex Salmond's Alba party sees itself as the champion of sex-based rights
It’s a grey morning on the outskirts of Dundee, and Alex Salmond is meeting a youth kickboxing champion. It’s pouring with rain and there’s no other media anywhere to be seen on this campaign stop.
The former first minister of Scotland is out canvassing for Alba, the pro-independence party formed ahead of last year’s Scottish elections. Branded a “real and present danger” to the Union by former Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, Alba was touted as posing a threat to the SNP, after two of Nicola Sturgeon’s MSPs defected to join it. But after winning zero seats in Holyrood, and getting a dismal 1.6% of the vote, Salmond was forced to find new ways to incentivise voters.
Beyond Scottish independence, the greatest challenge facing Nicola Sturgeon’s government is the delivery of the Gender Recognition Act - which would make it easier for trans people to legally certify their identity. The bill has split the SNP into entrenched pro and anti camps: gender-critical feminists believe it threatens women’s spaces, while those who support it say their opponents are depriving trans people of their human rights.
Now, Salmond’s Alba Party is hoping to capitalise on these divisions within the SNP by presenting itself as a champion of sex-based rights. At its recent conference the party pledged to offer sanctuary for anti-trans activists and so-called “gender critical” feminists who have been forced out of the SNP.
Gender reform is one of three central issues on which all of Alba’s 111 candidates standing for election across Scotland are campaigning, alongside independence and child poverty. And their local manifesto contains pledges to “push women’s rights to the top of the agenda” and calls for a Citizen’s Assembly to discuss the issue of gender self-identification.
“I think a woman is an adult human female, sex has biological definitions but I think gender is a much more fluid matter to interpret,” says Salmond. When asked to define his exact position, he said he would wait for the outcome of a Citizen’s Assembly.
In the wider Salmond camp, the debate lacks nuance.
“We’ve just been to meet gender neutral lobsters,” campaign manager Denise Findlay tells me - fresh from a visit further north in Aberdeen campaigning with fishermen who’ve seen their business mercilessly decimated by Brexit. “They were female, but we’re letting them self-identify”. I thought the trip was about fishing. “It’s always about the trans problem,” she says.
Unlike her former boss, Nicola Sturgeon has been careful not to wade into the culture war on trans rights. Speaking in Edinburgh on Saturday, Sturgeon told reporters: “Trans people are among, possibly the most, stigmatised and discriminated against minorities in our society.
“And every time we oversimplify this debate, trans people actually suffer. And I think it’s important, they’re such a tiny minority, that we actually take the issues around protecting and enhancing the rights of trans people seriously.”
The Alba leader is now experiencing the fallout of making opposition to the Gender Reform Act a focus of his campaign. A few weeks ago, a scheduled talk at Aberdeen University was cancelled last minute - after activists deemed his presence a danger to trans students.
“We went ahead with the meeting in a car park, “ he says. “The trans activists turned up. They asked perfectly reasonable questions. I gave them perfectly reasonable answers and I agree with them for the most part, especially on banning corrective therapy.”
It’s hard to find voters around Dundee that particularly care about whether people should have the right to self-determine their gender. In recent years, the city has been described as the drug death capital of Europe. “Who’s looking at the heroin problem,” a cab driver asks me. “We’ve got no work, half the shops on the high street closed during Covid - I don’t care about whether you’ve got a fanny or a penis.”
Back at the Dundee photo-call, Salmond is pictured receiving a blow to the head from the young kickboxing star, and it’s likely he'll get a kicking in the polls. A recent Survation poll showed Sturgeon could be on track for her best ever local elections performance, while Salmond might be lucky to scoop 3%.
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