At Cop27 Nicola Sturgeon is running around claiming to lead the world. Meanwhile, back home on the domestic front there is ever more trouble.

The party has long prided itself on taking a CCP-style approach to internal discipline. Rebellions have been largely unheard of since the party took over in 2007 and then smashed Scottish Labour. It would be an exaggeration to say SNP MSPs and MPs are required to leave their brains at the door when attending party meetings with Chairman Nic, otherwise known as “Wee Krankie”, but it’s not much of an exaggeration.

Now the unified approach is unravelling. And to the astonishment of the party leadership, SNP ministers and backbenchers are finding their voices. The cause of unrest is the transgender debate that is getting messier by the day in Scotland as feminists and their supporters decide they are not going to take it any more.

Last month, SNP members in Holyrood were whipped to support stage one of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. It was voted through, but the backbench rebellion was the largest the party has faced since it took power in 2007. In total seven SNP MSPs voted against the bill including Ash Regan, who resigned from her position as community safety minister.

The bill will now move to the second stage which involves two committee hearings. 

The legislation is controversial, and its opponents are concerned about the impact it will have on women’s rights and single-sex spaces. It allows anyone over 16 to alter their legal gender without any medical involvement. 

Party fixers scrambled in the Scottish parliament in an attempt to get rebels into line. It didn’t work, and now the possibility of a partial retreat is being floated. It appears Sturgeon will have another rebellion on her hands at the time of the third reading, which follows the committee hearings. 

Though the Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, is perhaps Sturgeon’s most well-known and brave critic on this issue – last month she posed in a “Nicola Sturgeon: Destroyer of Women’s Rights” t-shirt – those closer to home, in her own party, indeed those in her own top team, will also be of great concern to the SNP leader.

Kate Forbes, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, who did not take part in the stage one vote because she was on maternity leave, and is until early next year, signed a letter to the Scottish government in 2019 that highlighted problems that could arise if biological men were permitted by law to self-identify as women. Forbes, who has spoken about her Christian faith, said in January that her position on the matter had not changed. She happens to be one of the favourites to be the next SNP leader, although there have long been suggestions she’ll walk away from politics rather than seek the leadership when Sturgeon leaves, as all leaders must in the end. Even “wee Krankie.”

“They want this gender stuff done before Kate comes back,” says a Scottish parliament insider. They had better get a move on.

Sturgeon now has a fight on her hands.

What’s happening here? One of the biggest stories in British politics, not that you would know it south of the border where most broadcasters tend to take Sturgeon and her supporters at their own estimation, rarely if ever challenging her on the SNP’s atrocious record on ferries, education and the NHS in Scotland.

This row matters so much because it shows gravity and the erosion of time applies to the SNP, as it does to any imperious political project. Eventually, there’s a slide. Spending too long in power breeds arrogance and erodes discipline. Even people on the inside get sick of being pushed around by the leadership. It happened to the Thatcher project, and to New Labour. The Tory party at Westminster is going through it’s own unravelling now. With all the focus on the soap opera in SW1 it should not be forgotten that one of the most significant forces of the last 15 years – the surge of the movement to break up Britain – is in the process of coming unstuck. 

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