In a desperate attempt to deflect attention away from a deepening political and industrial crisis, where the working class is on the move, the Tory government has yet again manufactured another ‘culture war’ clash – this time with Holyrood.
Last week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed that his government would be stepping in to block the Scottish Parliament from passing the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill, which would extend rights for transgender people.
This law aims to simplify the process by which transgender individuals can legally change their gender, alongside lowering the age of application to 16. Such legislation mirrors that which already exists in a whole number of countries, including Ireland, Norway, and Belgium.
A toxic debate has been whipped up over the proposed reforms, however, which the Tories have cynically utilised and exacerbated for their own political ends.
With the PM’s backing, Tory Scottish secretary Alister Jack announced the move to formally quash the Scottish legislation using section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 – a ‘nuclear option’ that has never before been deployed in 25 years of devolution.
“This is not about trans; it’s not about a culture war,” Jack asserted, hardly keeping a straight face. “It is entirely about a bill which legally cuts across UK-wide legislation.”
Of course, anyone with half a brain can see that Downing Street’s actions have nothing whatsoever to do with a supposed conflict of laws with the rest of the UK. Nor are the Tories motivated by ‘defending women’s rights’.
Despite what Sunak and Jack say, this is all about whipping up a culture war. This is a ‘red meat’ issue, deliberately being used to fire up the Tory membership, increase divisions, and distract from the crises engulfing the Sunak government – particularly on the industrial front.
With workers striking across the board – including nurses, ambulance workers, civil servants and teachers – and the trade unions organising the biggest coordinated action for more than a decade, the Tories are desperate to divert people’s attention elsewhere.
The Tory government saw the polarised and emotional debate over gender recognition in Scotland, and were keen to exploit this for their own ends. This was a deliberate tactic to sow as much division as possible.
This latest kibosh follows on from the recent disgraceful – but expected – Supreme Court ruling that denied Holyrood the authority to call a second independence referendum without approval from London. The result is that the ‘constitutional’ route to independence has been blocked.
Both these decisions drive a coach and horses through devolution, destroying any pretence of Scottish people’s democratic right to national self-determination.
“This is a full-frontal attack on our democratically elected Scottish parliament and its ability to make its own decisions on devolved matters,” tweeted Sturgeon in response to the Tories’ attempts to thwart the GRR Bill.
This is a full-frontal attack on our democratically elected Scottish Parliament and it's ability to make it's own decisions on devolved matters. @scotgov will defend the legislation & stand up for Scotland’s Parliament. If this Westminster veto succeeds, it will be first of many https://t.co/3WXrjyivvC— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) January 16, 2023
This intervention by Sunak, however, is also a useful distraction for the SNP leadership.
Sturgeon and co. have failed to produce any coherent strategy for independence. Instead, their ‘cunning plan’ is simply to assert that the next general election will be a de facto referendum on Scottish independence. But this is meaningless.
The GRR was first mooted by Sturgeon in 2016; regarded as an easy reform that would not cost any money.
Fast forward to today, and the SNP are planning major budget cuts. John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, has outlined £1.2bn in cuts for the coming year – “a full-frontal attack” on Scottish workers.
Kate Forbes, the Scottish finance secretary, has warned of a grim outlook. Swinney, meanwhile, has stated that the country’s economic perspectives are now “clearly even more difficult”.
“Measures for efficiency and reform in the delivery of our public services will be even more important,” the Deputy First Minister continued.
This is the same language used by the Tories, and also by Keir Starmer – meaning further austerity and attacks on public services.
This will most impact services in working-class communities, hitting the most vulnerable, including women and transgender people. There are already painfully-long NHS waiting lists, for example, and these will only get worse for anyone who depends on the public healthcare system.
Austerity and crisis
Workers, facing wage cuts and a cost-of-living crisis, have been told by Sturgeon that “we have no more money this year”. Swinney has said that there is “nowhere else to go”, and that pay rises must be resisted.
Similarly, teachers’ unions have described the Scottish government’s offer as “insulting”, as they undertake action. Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Scottish education secretary, has opposed the strikes, stating that any offer must be “affordable” given “the unprecedented pressures facing Scotland’s budget”.
This is also the same line as the Tory government in Westminster.
Furthermore, the Scottish health service – like in the rest of Britain – is experiencing a deep crisis, with staff shortages and routine surgery cancellations. Health unions have blamed the Scottish government for failing to adequately prepare, despite warnings.
The SNP leaders simply point the finger at the Westminster government for cutting the money allocated to Scotland. But austerity is the logic of capitalism in crisis, whatever the government.
The economy is in a dire state, and workers are being asked to pay. But the SNP are also committed to this rotten capitalist system. They can’t have their cake and eat it. A capitalist independent Scotland would be in the same crisis-ridden boat.
The row over the GRR Bill suits the SNP leaders, by also taking the limelight away from the embarrassing avalanche of strikes taking place in Scotland – especially those of teachers, nurses, midwives, and others over pay.
Their ‘progressive’ veneer is being stripped away with every dispute.
Martin Rowson, the Guardian cartoonist, summed it all up, depicting a scene outside a Scottish hospital, jam-packed with ambulances and striking workers.
In the foreground are two lone figures, Sunak and Sturgeon looking at one another. “Um…fancy an easy culture war instead?” asks the Tory Prime Minister. “You’re on!” replies the SNP leader.
This conflict suits both sides, for their own reasons.
Latest Graun toon for the morning shift, comments closed last night, probably for the best https://t.co/wwCVWSrYDK— Martin Rowson (@MartinRowson) January 18, 2023
Keir Starmer has also stumbled into the debate: not outraged at the attack on self-determination, but simply wondering if 16 years old is a bit low in regards to the GRR proposals – although the Labour leader seems fine with marriage at that age, or even joining the British Army.
In fact, Starmer instructed his party to abstain on the Tory government’s use of the Scotland Act, allowing it to pass.
His mind was no doubt occupied by other matters: pushing his suggested ‘reorganisation’ of the NHS, a euphemism for privatisation; distancing himself from the ongoing strike wave; and schmoozing with the bankers and billionaires in Davos.
Struggle for socialism
A court battle is now looming over Westminster’s decision to block the GRR legislation. This will serve to keep the pot boiling.
This fits with the SNP’s ‘strategy’, which is built around pointless legal battles, rather than political ones.
This ‘culture war’ will backfire for the Tories and SNP leaders alike, however. Their antics will not succeed in holding back the rising tide of class struggle, which in turn will forge the unity of the working class, and draw in the struggles of the oppressed.
North of the border, many will see Sunak’s actions as further evidence of Westminster riding roughshod over Scottish self-determination. This will no doubt increase demands for independence.
In contrast to the SNP leaders, however, who are acting as the messengers of austerity, the independence movement must adopt a class approach, giving whole-hearted support to workers in struggle.
Furthermore, the movement must abandon the shackles of capitalism, and campaign for a Scottish Workers’ Republic, as part of the wider international struggle for socialism.
Only in this way will all forms of oppression be swept away; will national aspirations be satisfied; and will the wealth of society be used in the interests of the majority, and not for the benefit of a tiny handful of billionaire parasites.
There is no solution for workers everywhere but to put an end to this capitalist nightmare through united class struggle.