The intervention from London angered Scottish politicians, but it’s not clear that backers of independence can use the issue to their advantage.
LONDON — When Scotland united with England and the Scottish Parliament closed its doors in 1707, it did not reopen until almost three centuries later, after pressure for more Scottish autonomy resulted in a deal in 1998 to share power between London and Edinburgh.
Twenty-five years on, that agreement, known as devolution, faces its stiffest challenge yet.
Last week, for the first time, the British government overruled Scotland’s Parliament, scuttling its plan to make it easier for Scots to change their gender. The decision not only threatens to become a full blown constitutional crisis over transgender rights. It also prompted angry claims by Scottish politicians that London was thwarting the will of their Parliament, potentially handing pro-independence forces a potent weapon to galvanize the movement.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and a champion of independence, described London’s move as “a full-frontal attack on our democratically elected Scottish Parliament and its ability to make its own decisions.”
And Stephen Flynn, leader of the Scottish National Party’s lawmakers in the British Parliament, claimed it portends a slippery slope toward “direct rule” from London.
Yet some analysts say it is not at all clear that a dispute over transgender rights will bolster support for Scotland’s independence. “In the short turn, it’s not the silver bullet for independence,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, “though I certainly don’t think it’s likely that this is going to reduce support.”
Professor Curtice added, “Leaving aside the very fractious debate between the activists on both sides, amongst the general public, it’s not a subject on which people care a great deal.”
The political fallout is unpredictable, he said, because there is limited public support for the transgender policy at the heart of the rift, with some polls showing a majority of Scots opposing the key proposed changes.
The legislation approved last month by the Scottish Parliament would allow transgender people to have the gender with which they identify legally recognized and to get a new birth certificate without a medical diagnosis. It would apply to people 16 and older who make a legally binding declaration that they are already living in their “acquired gender,” according to the measure, and intend to do so permanently.
Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, used a statute that dates to 1998, when the modern-day Scottish Parliament was established, to block the legislation, arguing that it was in conflict with equality laws that apply across Britain — not just Scotland.
While Parliament in Edinburgh has powers over gender recognition laws, some equality legislation falls under the remit of the British Parliament in Westminster.
Politics in Britain
- A New Pledge: In a sweeping speech on Jan. 4, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, laid out a series of promises to restore the country to prosperity and well-being, challenging Britons to hold him to account.
- A Constitutional Rift: Britain’s government moved to block new Scottish legislation that would make it easier for people to legally change their gender, stoking a highly charged debate over transgender rights.
- Worker Strikes: Crippling strikes across multiple industries have Britain’s Conservative government facing a “winter of discontent,” just as a Labour government did 44 years ago.
Tension between London and Edinburgh is hardly new. Brexit injected an extra layer into the relationship, straining a convention under which the British government will not normally legislate on matters that are controlled by the Scottish Parliament under the 1998 devolution agreement. Since Britons voted to leave the European Union (a majority of Scots who voted opted to remain), relations between Ms. Sturgeon and British leaders have oscillated between chilly and glacial.
Never popular among Scots, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the main architect of Brexit, made only rare public appearances in Scotland, where his presence invariably attracted a throng of noisy protesters. Liz Truss, who succeeded him briefly, said her strategy was to “ignore” Ms. Sturgeon, dismissing her as an “attention seeker.”
Mr. Sunak appeared to be on a smoother path when he recently had dinner with Ms. Sturgeon at a hotel in Inverness — his second meeting with her since he came to power — and posted a photo on social media showing them smiling and shaking hands.
Yet, within days, Ms. Sturgeon had denounced Mr. Sunak’s approach on the transgender issue as “unconscionable, indefensible and really quite disgraceful.” She accused him of “using trans people, already one of the most vulnerable stigmatized groups in our society, as a political weapon.”
Though some critics say they believe that Ms. Sturgeon provoked London over the bill on transgender rights to get a reaction, there is little evidence of that.
“This has been a very difficult piece of legislation for the Scottish government,” said Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh. “It has created an awful lot of tension often within their own ranks; it has created very heated and often-toxic debates, so I don’t think it was entered into lightly.”
She added, “I think the first minister is committed to the policy, and lots of other governments around the world have been looking at similar legislation, so it’s not unique to Scotland.”
Similarly, critics claim that Mr. Sunak is deliberately engaging in culture wars, calculating that blocking the legislation would please right-wing supporters. But Mr. Sunak has, in fact, dialed down his predecessors’ rhetoric on identity and culture issues.
Mr. Sunak left it to his Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, to announce the decision to overrule Scotland’s Parliament. The following day, his government made an offering to more socially liberal supporters: Transgender rights would be covered by promised legislation to ban so-called conversion therapy, it said, though legislative language has yet to be disclosed.
That suggests the two sides may have stumbled into a conflict in which both see some political benefit, analysts say.
“I don’t think this was stoked purposefully by either administration,” Professor McEwen said. She added that, for Labour, Britain’s main opposition party, the debate over transgender rights “is clearly difficult terrain.” Its members are much more divided and their leader, Keir Starmer, has tried to avoid taking sides.
Labour also opposes Scottish independence and is committed to the current system.
In recent years, the British government has hardened its stance toward Scotland, Professor McEwen said. “It is more willing to push back at the boundaries of devolution and more willing to see the U.K. government as having a legitimate role to play in devolved areas because it is the government of the whole of the U.K.”
If the rift over transgender rights ends up undermining the authority and credibility of Scotland’s Parliament, underscoring its subordination to Westminster, that could deal a blow to those who want to stick with the status quo rather than take the further step to independence.
Professor Curtice said that he could see little to damage the pro-independence forces from the dispute but that a clash over the powers of the Scottish Parliament was peripheral to the wider independence debate.
“At the end of the day, the crucial question is whether or not the Scottish National Party can persuade people that an independent Scotland inside the European Union is a better place than being inside the U.K. and outside the E.U.,” Professor Curtice added. “Arguments about process are not really the nub of the issue.”
For Ms. Sturgeon, there could be danger in opening another battle with London, having promised to try to turn the next general election into a de facto vote on her demand for an independence referendum.
“There is a risk that there are so many of these issues that are pointed to as grievances that they have diminishing returns,” Professor McEwen said.
That sense of political exhaustion was encapsulated by the political commentator Alison Rowat in The Herald. “How much constitutional drama,” she wrote, “can one small but beautifully formed nation be expected to take?”