The revolt in the SNP over Scotland’s controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill is a first in that a minister has resigned on a matter of principle, but it is not the first time the issue has caused splits in the party.

The Scottish Nationalist MP Joanna Cherry, a vocal advocate of women’s rights, was sacked from her front bench job as justice spokesman early last year after she opposed her party’s plans, which will enable people as young as 16 to change their gender without a medical diagnosis.

The SNP is determined to push ahead with its bill, which will also reduce the amount of time someone must live in their acquired gender from two years to three months.

Westminster dropped similar legislation in 2020, amid fears it would make it easier for sexual predators to pretend to be transgender in order to access women’s safe spaces, such as refuges and changing rooms.

Cherry, who claims she has since been effectively “cancelled” by the SNP over her views, was one of 15 senior SNP politicians who wrote an open letter to Nicola Sturgeon in 2019, urging her not to rush into “changing the definition of male and female” and calling for an end to “knee-jerk accusations of transphobia” against anyone who aired their fears about the proposals.

Another signatory was the then SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, also outspoken on the repercussions of self-ID on women. The SNP demoted her in its regional list for the 2021 elections, and she lost her parliamentary seat.

But while Sturgeon may have found Cherry and McAlpine, both supporters at one time of Alex Salmond, dispensable as political allies, the revolt in the past few days, involving nine of her MSPs, is likely to have unnerved her.

Ash Regan, the Nationalist MSP and minister for community safety, put her conscience before her career when she announced she could not support “any legislation that may have negative implications for the safety and dignity of women and girls”.

Sturgeon, who had denied her MSPs a free vote, sounded rattled. Curiously, she affected surprise over Regan’s move, saying the minister had not approached her with concerns about the bill. 

Yet Regan had been one of the signatories to the letter in 2019, and said she has held and raised her concerns for some time. According to the Times, she has had multiple meetings with government officials over her reservations.

The significance of the bold stance of this minister and her colleagues – six more voted against the party and two abstained – should not be underestimated. It marks the greatest rebellion ever for the famously disciplined SNP and heralds more trouble ahead as the law makes its way through Holyrood.

The mutiny could have been even bigger. Those missing from this week’s vote included the finance minister, Kate Forbes, who is on maternity leave, and was also among the signatories to the 2019 letter.

Forbes, an SNP star often tipped as a future party leader, will not be absent as the bill is subjected to greater scrutiny. Her comments to STV last year, saying, “My hope would be that nobody’s voice is silenced in this debate”, threw down a gauntlet that her boss should not dismiss.

This week’s rebels were reportedly offered promotions if they toed the line, or threatened with punishment if they didn’t, but would Sturgeon dare to deploy the same tactics with Forbes?

Cherry said she received “very threatening messages” from a party member after her sacking, but ostracisation has brought freedom of sorts and she has subsequently been one of the most prominent campaigners in the so-called gender critical movement.

The danger for Sturgeon is that Ash and her fellow rebels will now join the clamour and their protest will become a rallying cry for growing public unease in Scotland over the SNP’s extreme position on trans rights.

The MSP, Fergus Ewing, who also defied the party whip, said he believed he was representing the view of “a substantial majority” of his constituents in Inverness and Nairn. As greater light is shone on this issue, will that not be the view shared by most Scottish voters?

Revelations this week, in the Telegraph, that Scotland’s gender identity clinic was referring children for irreversible sex changes based on patients’ self-diagnosis will have shocked many Scots.

The Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow, dubbed Scotland’s Tavistock after the scandal-hit English gender centre, has apparently been offering life-altering treatments to vulnerable youngsters, some as young as 12.

The Tavistock in London was ordered to shut down after a review commissioned by NHS England found it was “not safe” for children. Doctors, rather than therapists, will handle transgender services in future.

NHS England has also changed its advice to doctors dealing with children who think they are transgender, saying medics should not encourage them to change their names and pronouns. And controls on prescribing puberty blockers have been tightened.

But Scotland has ignored this shifting attitude south of the border and Sturgeon, with her new bill, seems intent on going out on a limb.

Why she has risked alienating chunks of the electorate on this matter is puzzling. Some suggest it is in keeping with her pursuit of progressive (or merely fashionable) causes to latch on to, and that she has not properly understood the implications for ordinary women.

She is undoubtedly influenced by her even more zealous Green Party supporters, especially Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, who believe that gender identity trumps biological sex.

Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill was passed in principle on Thursday by 88 votes to 33, but that is just the beginning. 

If Sturgeon refuses to heed the mounting disquiet inside and outside her party, she could find herself brought down in the end not by Scottish unionists but by Scottish women.

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