Iain Macwhirter Iain Macwhirter

Has the SNP really turned its back on identity politics?

John Swinney and Kate Forbes (Credit: Getty images)

The term ‘progressive’ has been much abused in the past decade. Originally a term denoting enlightenment and social universalism, it became synonymous with the tribalism of identity politics and unenlightened transgender ideology. But perhaps this new ‘woke’ variant of progressivism has had its day. At any rate, change is in the air in Scotland. 

The chaotic disintegration of the Green-SNP alliance has left the bien pensant radicals in Scotland in poor shape. That ‘progressive coalition’ has been replaced with a small ‘c’ conservative alliance between John Swinney, a middle-aged white male if ever there was one, and Kate Forbes, his new deputy – who is unapologetic about her faith-based views on key LGBT issues like gay marriage. 

The Scottish government’s lurch to the centre right has cause mild panic on the green left

Forbes is a member of the ultra-conservative Free Church of Scotland, often called the ‘Wee Frees’ by its critics. Last year, she famously declared that she would not have voted for same sex marriage had she been an MSP when the bill was passed by Holyrood, nor did she approve of having children out of wedlock. She also said that the double rapist Isla Bryson ‘is a man’ when the then First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, could not.

Views like these have been all but inexpressible in the SNP in recent years. Only last year, before he became party leader, John Swinney questioned whether it was even ‘appropriate’ for someone of ‘her views’ to stand for the leadership of the SNP. Now, John Swinney, installed as First Minister this week, has put her in a prime position to be his successor. Indeed, this extraordinary internal takeover is looking a bit like something out of the TV series Succession

Forbes replaced Shona Robison as deputy first minister, a leading Sturgeon ally who piloted the controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill through the Scottish Parliament. Another prominent LGBT campaigner, Emma Roddick, has also stepped down from her position as equalities minister. The former Green minister, Patrick Harvie, cut a lonely figure this week as he railed against ‘transphobia’ in politics during the debate on the Cass Review on gender services for children. At First Minister’s Questions he said Forbes’s presence in the Scottish government risked ‘taking Scotland back to the repressive values of the 1950s’.

It was clear that SNP MSPs have stopped listening. Dr Cass’s report has now belatedly been endorsed by the Scottish government as a scientifically valid and important document – though John Swinney hasn’t got round to saying which if any of Dr Cass’s recommendations he will be introducing. But, in a sense, the decision has been made for him. The Sandyford gender clinic in Glasgow, which used to prescribe puberty blockers to nine year olds has ‘paused’ the use of these drugs on children. Swinney has now apparently abandoned the Gender Recognition Reform Act which he said, wrongly, could not proceed because ‘the Supreme Court’ ruled against it. It was actually a Scottish court that ruled on the narrow issue of the UK government’s use of Article 35 of the Scotland Act to withhold royal assent. But whatever, it looks like the GRRB, passed by Holyrood in December 2022 is finally pushing up the daisies.

The Scottish government’s lurch to the centre right has cause mild panic on the green left. Prominent LGBT activists like the columnist Cameron Archibald, say the party is no longer one they can support. 

‘For 10 years now. I’ve given blood, sweat and tears for the party’, he tweeted this week, ‘But if John Swinney believes that deputy first minister should go to someone who sees me as less deserving of basic rights, less human to them, then I won’t campaign for them’. 

The political editor of the Daily Record, Paul Hutcheon, described the new SNP duo as ‘a choice between yesterday’s man and the member of parliament for the 19th century’. The independence-supporting tax expert Professor Richard Murphy, an influential figure in SNP politics, says the party has succumbed to ‘neoliberalism’ and says Forbes’s opinions should ‘exclude her from high office’. 

But it is not hard to understand why the SNP has so conspicuously tried to abandon progressivism. As Edinburgh University Politics Professor Ailsa Henderson told BBC’s Good Morning Scotland this week, there’s a strong feeling amongst voters, especially SNP ones, that the Scottish government was no longer paying attention to the issues they think are important: health, the economy, schools. The revolt against ‘woke’ has clearly been noticed by the SNP election strategists as they try to combat the threat from Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour party which has been racing up the opinion polls. 

Is this new nationalist conservatism credible? Can the party of Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf really be drawing a line under identity politics? John Swinney has always been a prominent supporter of Nicola Sturgeon. She remains highly influential from the backbenches having helped engineer Swinney’s coronation as First Minister. Perhaps she hopes that Forbes has been gagged, or that she will not stand up to the rigours of high office. That seems improbable to anyone who knows the formidable Ms Forbes.  

The SNP is reacting to the tide of history which is now running against the excesses of hair shirt environmentalism and transgenderism, in Scotland at least. The SNP’s raison d’être is independence and it will do whatever it takes to build support for leaving the UK. If that means abandoning the ‘wine bar revolutionaries’, as the SNP MSP Fergus Ewing called the Scottish Greens, so be it. ‘Go woke go broke’ can apply in politics too.

Written by
Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is a former BBC TV presenter and was political commentator for The Herald between 1999 and 2022. He is an author of Road to Referendum and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland.

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