Nicola Sturgeon faces fortnight of criticism over trans prisons policy

Critics claim her career is ‘over,’ while trans Scots worry about sensationalised coverage after trans rapist put in women’s prison

Few can be anticipating Holyrood’s recess next week as keenly as Nicola Sturgeon.

She has endured a fortnight of relentless and increasingly personal criticism, punishing headlines and lacklustre polling. Meanwhile, her critics in the media have declared her career is “over”.

And her former mentor Alex Salmond has accused her of “throwing away” the impetus for Scottish independence with the focus on her gender recognition reforms.

All of this was provoked by reports that a newly convicted transgender woman Isla Bryson – who committed two rapes while living as a man, Adam Graham – was being initially assessed in the women-only prison Cornton Vale.

Although Bryson was moved to a male prison less than 72 hours later, after Sturgeon herself made it plain “a rapist should not be in a woman’s prison”, the public outcry has not abated. The furore escalated after similar cases emerged, and former inmates of Cornton Vale described their distress at sharing facilities with individuals with male genitalia.

Opponents of the Scottish government’s gender recognition changes – self-identification for those who wish to change legal sex – have seized on the row as vindicating their concerns about lack of safeguards in the bill, which the UK government blocked it from going for royal assent last month because of “safety issues for women and children”. They have called for Sturgeon to be held personally accountable for endangering vulnerable women.

Meanwhile, transgender Scots report the personal cost of sensationalised coverage, as monitoring groups warn of a spike in hate crime that typically follows such focus.

The Scottish Prison Service insists it was following a policy put in place nearly a decade ago, but it would seem that the treatment of sex offenders and gender recognition are now inextricably linked in the public consciousness. Ipsos polling held after the Bryson story broke found 50% of those surveyed support the UK government’s decision to block the gender bill, which is striking given it had cross-party support.

Although every party leader at Holyrood, bar the Scottish Conservative’s Douglas Ross, supported the plans and similar proposals are being brought by Welsh Labour, the ongoing controversy is seen by many as a referendum on Sturgeon’s leadership and priorities.

Asked at every opportunity to state whether Isla Bryon is a man or a woman, Sturgeon – a politician celebrated for her communication skills – has delivered a series of uncharacteristically faltering responses, both in ascribing gender and hinting she agreed with reports Bryson was likely gaming the system. It is a question which plenty of other politicians and campaigners admit privately they dread being asked, but also one that LGBTQ+ allies argue only serves to undermine the identity of all trans people.

What is clear that to all those involved is that this row – in particular the image of Bryson outside court in a blond wig – has cut through to voters in a way that the detail of gender recognition reform did not. But by how much?

Polling for the Sunday Times last weekend found a dip in support for the SNP and Sturgeon – though still well ahead of all other parties and leaders – although no specific questions were asked on trans policy and disengagement could as easily be ascribed to the cost of living, school strikes or NHS failings.

Scottish government sources maintain that, while the past few weeks have been “very difficult”, the controversy is unlikely to “shift the tectonic plates” of voting intention. They point out that the first minister has weathered heavier storms, most notably the inquiry the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against her predecessor Salmond.

Salmond, who is urging against a court challenge to the UK government over the blocked gender bill, himself lost no time in attacking his successor for her focus on “self-indulgent nonsense”.

But it is not only the former first minister warning against linking independence to an increasingly divisive cause. It marks a divergence too from the usual strategy of easy-does-it-until-independence, in order to keep a broad coalition onside. In public and private the repeated question is: why choose this hill to die on?

For others, the answer is simple: Sturgeon passionately believes this is the next right thing to do in terms of equalities reform, and will not be swayed by an accelerating culture war.

But James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, insists the furore of the past week exemplifies a rigid approach to government.

“Sturgeon is a campaigner and those skills are not appropriate for government, which requires long-term planning, accepting that things can get difficult, and that you have to convince people while also respecting them,” he said

The current focus on gender matters may turn off voters who are more concerned about their gas bills, suggests Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at Glasgow University and former Scottish Conservative MSP. “A lot of people will have noticed this is the only subject of Scottish political conversation over the last month and that allows the impression to fester that the Scottish government’s priorities are not the people’s priorities,” he said.

There are certainly those in the SNP’s Holyrood group who express weariness and frustration that, after the gruelling bill process, there remains “no end in sight”.

And this speaks to wider internal criticisms of how the SNP operates: hyper-managed, with a limited inner circle and little space for dissent – it’s notable that new Westminster leader Stephen Flynn was keen to assure the Guardian last week that internal disagreements should be respected.

A special party conference is planned for March to debate Sturgeon’s plan to run the next general or Holyrood election as a de facto referendum, after the supreme court ruled that only the UK government could allow another independence poll.

And now dissent is spilling forth whether the leadership like it or not. Two senior SNP figures, previously loyalist MP Stewart McDonald, and former Holyrood health secretary Alex Neil on Wednesday urged SNP members to reject the de facto proposal and party insiders anticipate further ructions before the vote.

But one equalities campaigner points out that the impact of the prisons row goes well beyond what it means for one politician or party: “What does it mean for Scotland and the minorities of all kinds living in it, where it’s now acceptable to dismiss inclusivity as ‘nonsense’?”

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