Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP – whisper it – want the Tories to stay in power. They need the grievance provided by the Tory party in Westminster to keep going. A Labour UK government would mean they couldn’t maintain the same degree of anger which currently inflames their supporters. Would Sturgeon legitimately be able to say – as she did with the Tories – that she detests the Labour party? Clearly not, as this would alienate the voters she needs for independence. So the attack has moved to Labour and to Keir Starmer specifically. 

Sturgeon recently called Starmer’s view that patients should self-refer for medical treatment on the NHS “dangerous” and asked if he will increase spending on the NHS in the UK, which of course produces a corresponding uptick in Scottish spending through the Barnett formula. This would help Sturgeon as she seems incapable of resolving the current problems in the NHS in Scotland through her own actions. 

NHS advisers, unions, and policymakers have warned for years that the SNP’s policies on the NHS have been doomed to fail. The current woes are simply the result of years of policy inaction by successive Scottish health ministers, including Sturgeon herself who filled the role for many years. When the SNP came to power 15 years ago, spending on the NHS was 22 per cent above that in England. It is now 2 per cent and likely to be less in the next couple of years. This is the more prosaic reason Sturgeon wants Starmer to commit to higher spending.

It is also important to recognise that Sturgeon now faces enemies on two sides. She has her traditional “It’s the Tories that are to blame” line which is easy to play but now must be supplemented with the Tory-lite tirades about the Labour party. This is going to be harder to do because she must both argue that she wants rid of the Tories while recognising that the only party that can do that is Labour. The argument must then be that the Conservatives are awful and need to be ousted, but the Labour party is just like the Tories so don’t vote for them either.

Which is it to be Nicola: Labour good and Tories out or Tories remain in power because Labour are no better? Even for someone of Sturgeon’s talent for slipperiness with the truth this is a difficult play. Labour is eroding her electoral base at a time when she needs to gain a record vote. She has to both attack Tory and Labour voters’ views to attract people to the SNP. This will require duplicity on an epic scale and, even for the ablest of politicians, seems like too big a challenge.

But along comes Rishi Sunak, who has given Sturgeon supporters and detractors precisely the action they wanted. Sturgeon needs opposition to the Gender Reform Bill to stoke up her supporters, to show that Westminster is evil in putting down Scots by banning them from having their own laws. And crucially, Starmer has also said that he is likely to support the Westminster government in blocking this law. Here is the wedge that can tackle two opponents in one and prove that Labour is simply red Tory.

For those in the SNP opposed to Sturgeon this will also come as something of a relief. Many in her party are delighted that the Westminster parliament is opposing a bill they neither understand nor agree with and which has limited support among the electorate. 

The Gender Reform Bill is widely regarded as a personal project by Sturgeon to highlight her progressive politics to the world and ultimately gain a job elsewhere, ideally in the UN or the EU, neither of which appears to be forthcoming. The notion that this is law created for the benefit of Scots is laughable. It’s a one-woman crusade by Sturgeon, aimed at enhancing her CV.

Crucially this challenge to the bill also distracts from the frankly embarrassing U-turn at the weekend, dropping her pledge to make the next general election a “de facto” referendum on Scottish independence. The back-pedalling on this is astonishing both in its arrogance and indifference to SNP supporters. The idea now is not to have a “de facto” referendum at the next general election – which is less than two years away – but maybe say the next Scottish election in 2026 should be regarded as a “de facto” referendum. 

So, another four years to wait guys. Only four more years before we say an election is effectively a referendum but one without any power to be implemented. The SNP is also going to set the bar as low as possible, so 50 per cent plus one vote will count as a clear mandate for a referendum.

Even then, so what? Westminster still has the veto; it can still say this vote doesn’t count as a referendum and the risk remains that if the SNP doesn’t achieve 50 per cent it kills independence stone dead.

There are growing signs that this may be one move that simply won’t wash. There was an anti-Sturgeon protest outside parliament (only reported in the Scottish Daily Express, interestingly); there has been growing unrest from Sturgeon supporters inside the Westminster party including Pete Wishart and Stewart McDonald both of whom said the de facto policy was problematic.

Stephen Flynn, the new leader of the SNP in Westminster and an MP for Aberdeen South, has directly opposed Sturgeon’s anti-oil and gas policy by stating that he would approve the Cambo oil field development if it met the necessary criteria, whatever that means. Sturgeon is directly opposed without question to further oil field expansion in the North Sea in a bid to appease her Green government partners. 

So, Sturgeon will be delighted that Westminster is blocking her Gender Recognition Bill. It avoids dealing with an NHS meltdown, a winter of strikes in schools, an economy that is performing substantially worse than the rest of the UK, and growing discontent within her own ranks. This is gold standard Sturgeon material as it is something she can sound righteously indignant about, and she will milk it for all she has got while ignoring the real issues closer to hand. Given the election is still nearly two years away we can expect an awful lot more of this kind of deflection, indignation, avoidance, and bluff. The start of another year of inertia and inactivity in Scottish politics.

Colin Wright is an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist. His writing has appeared in The Scotsman, the Herald, the Times, the Telegraph, the BBC, the New Statesman.

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