EDINBURGH—Scottish nationalists have never had better odds of achieving their centuries-long dream of securing independence. The Brexit that Scots voters never wanted is turning out to be just as terrible as had been predicted, the foppish and painfully English prime minister, Boris Johnson, is shambling his way through an eternal fuck-up, and the last 20 opinion polls have shown the pro-independence side in the lead.
But, as anyone with even a Braveheart-level of knowledge of its national history knows, Scots have a long-held penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And, right now, Scottish nationalists who have spent their entire lives working up towards this moment are letting it all go to hell—over a furious and destructive row over transgender rights that has seen lawmakers burst into tears at meetings.
Britain’s persistent problem with transphobia, which comes from the political left as well as its right, has been well documented.
Scotland, where political leaders pride themselves on appearing more outward-looking and progressive than their Brexit-burping counterparts to the south, has not escaped from being sucked into the same brain-rotting vortex. In fact, it’s home to the issue’s most well-known culture warrior, JK Rowling, who was disavowed by almost every child actor ever to appear inside Hogwarts for her anti-trans tweets.
The problem has now swamped the center-left Scottish National Party, which leads the devolved Scottish government and has been the driving force behind the movement to split from Britain since the 1930s. Last week, things got so bad that its leader and first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, had to post a video begging young LGBTQ+ members of her party to stop cutting up their membership cards in droves due to the anti-trans views held by some of her party’s senior members.
In the video, Sturgeon said that she’d been told of “mainly young people, in significant numbers, leaving the SNP” because they no longer thought it was a safe place for transgender people. The first minister said it “grieves [her] deeply” that those younger members had reached that damning conclusion, and she pledged to do “everything [she] can to change that impression and persuade all of you that the SNP is your party.”
Sturgeon added: “Trans people have as much right as any of us to be safe, secure and valued for who they are. Transphobia is wrong and we must treat it with the zero tolerance we treat racism or homophobia.”
The message was welcomed, but, for most who quit, it fell far short of being enough to persuade them back. Their decisions came after what they have seen as several years of gradually increasing tolerance for—and lack of action against—toxic anti-trans views throughout the party.
One of the now-former members, Teddy Hope, who uses the pronouns they/them, told The Daily Beast that they quit as trans officer for the SNP’s LGBTQ+ wing last year after they were abused by party members at a meeting for being non-binary. Hope said one of their abusers was later picked for a major official role, and the party failed to act on their complaints about that person.
“I honestly believe the SNP has become one of the core hubs of transphobia in Scotland,” Hope explained. “We are seeing a process of radicalization occur within our movement. Those who are opposed to the human rights of trans people are small in number, but they hold a great deal of influence over party politics and our media, which is deeply worrying.”
Mridul Wadhwa, a trans woman of color who also felt forced to quit the party recently, told The Daily Beast she was repeatedly attacked when trying to stand for more senior positions in the party. She said the problem was at its worst when her eligibility to stand for selection on an all-woman candidate list was angrily questioned by party members.
“I expect transphobia everywhere I go, but this is a failure of leadership,” said Wadhwa. “I don’t think that there are huge numbers of people but there are enough with power and privilege who have debated about trans lives without involving or understanding our lives. I have come to believe that they don’t have any legitimate concerns, they are genocidal in their views in that they really don’t want us to exist.”
The breaking point for many came when one prominent SNP member of parliament, Joanna Cherry, voiced her support for Sarah Phillimore—a barrister and feminist activist whose Twitter account was suspended last month after she was accused of hateful conduct. Cherry’s support led to a deluge of SNP resignations. Phillimore denies that she’s ever tweeted anything transphobic, but, on a crowdfunding page for her defamation cases, admitted that she may have misgendered trans people.
Jack Boag, who was LGBT+ officer in the party’s student wing, said he decided to quit shortly after Cherry’s tweets. He told The Daily Beast that he initially came across anti-trans views in a “vocal minority hiding behind Twitter accounts,” but then he saw some of those people get promoted in the party, and came to the realization that the SNP leadership “were willing to placate them in the name of party unity.”
Days after Sturgeon posted her video, Cherry was sacked from her prominent position in the party, but she remains a member, and, in the past, has been mentioned by some as a future party leader. In a written statement, Cherry told The Daily Beast that she has been told that a “very large number” of SNP members have quit over her sacking, but didn’t comment on those who said they quit over her tweets.
Cherry added: “I am not aware of anyone in the SNP who wants to undermine the rights of trans people. As a lesbian, a feminist and a veteran of the struggles for equality I believe that everyone deserves equal protection under the law and I am very proud of the fact that in Scotland we have very good rights-based protections for trans people.”
Cherry said that she has “raised legitimate concerns” about gender recognition law, and said that it’s “concerning that in this area it is difficult to express a viewpoint without being labelled a transphobe.”
Cherry’s fellow SNP lawmakers, who asked to remain anonymous so they could speak freely on the matter, told The Daily Beast that the events of last few weeks have laid bare a factional split in the SNP—and, therefore, the independence movement. On one side, there is vocal trans-ally Sturgeon who has always taken a cautious approach to independence.
On the other, there is Cherry, who remains close to the former SNP leader Alex Salmond, who was last year acquitted of a string of charges in a sexual assault trial that he now claims was a witch-hunt orchestrated by current leader Sturgeon. Put simplistically, SNP insiders say these two factions have broadly fallen on either side of a toxic transgender culture war, causing the rupture that has now spilled into public view.
One Sturgeon ally said: “[Salmond supporters] seemed to ride this as a Trojan horse. Salmond will never be leader and it seems he has a small group of those who want independence at all costs [and] are using it to cause a divide in the party and unrest in Sturgeon’s leadership.”
Asked about the fracture, one SNP lawmaker told The Daily Beast: “It’s all one person—Joanna.” The lawmaker claimed one colleague burst into tears in an online group meeting when the argument over transgender rights became volatile last week.
On the other side, Cherry is feeling the shockwaves of the division too—last Thursday, a man was reportedly charged in connection with alleged threats made against the SNP politician on the day of her sacking. She publicly blamed her colleagues for spreading “lies” about her, and, in a Friday newspaper column, accused her party leaders of carrying out a “masterly piece of Stalinist revisionism” when they sacked her.
The SNP is now looking its most divided at the exact time when the stars have finally aligned for a majority of voters to back their lifelong cause. And, with young people routinely being the age demographic most likely to support independence, it’s a group they cannot afford to lose—but the people most likely to run from a stench of transphobia.
If anything, the divisions are likely to deepen if the Scottish government goes ahead with plans to back gender recognition reforms aimed at making it more simple for people to change their legal gender. The SNP could well head into an election in May, and then a promised second independence referendum in the next few years, tearing itself to pieces.
“Whenever the party comes up in conversation, even with those not immediately interested in politics, they automatically associate it with transphobia,” said former party trans officer Hope. “Radical change is needed just for trans people to feel safe campaigning for their rights in the party. Until that happens, it will continue to lose faith and support from its youth wing, until a generation of its activists are lost altogether.”
Wadhwa, one of the trans members who quit the party, said she would still vote for Scottish independence if given the opportunity, but she warned that, if the SNP is “serious about building a fairer, independent country,” then a “no tolerance approach to any kind of bigotry is what is needed—whether it is transphobia or any other prejudice.”
She added: “The party is far away from it.”