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One can debate to what degree Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of trans self-ID in Scotland contributed to her resignation. There is no shortage of other reasons – ranging from exhaustion through worse prospects for separatism (the first perhaps stemming from the second) to the SNP’s dire record in government…and perhaps the police inquiry into the party’s finances. We will know more sooner rather than later.
But while trans self-ID wasn’t the sole cause of Sturgeon’s announcement, it was clearly one of them. And the full story must take in not only the Scottish Government’s actions but the UK Government’s response.
The pressure on the latter not to deploy Section 35 of the Scotland Act came from several quarters. First, there were those who are sympathetic to trans self-ID, though not with it being effected in Scotland only. Then there were others who aren’t, but believed that the invocation of Section 35 from Westminster – and by the effing Tories at that – would turn the opposition of Scottish voters to the measure on its head.
Next, some worried that Conservative MSPs (two of whom voted for self-ID) would take fright at a veto issued from London. Others still fretted for all three reasons, or for a mix of two of them.
Who can tell what most drove Alister Jack to move Section 35 – with Rishi Sunak’s agreement, since the former couldn’t (government being as it is) and wouldn’t (Jack being as he is) have acted as he did without the Prime Minister’s say-so. Was it a literal reading of the law? Isaac Levido’s or other polling? The view of Kemi Badenoch? Or the argument of those in Westminster, Downing Street and Whitehall who insisted that Sturgeon had at long last made a fatal error?
It may now be that the SNP unite behind a new leader, ditch Sturgeon’s trans self-ID policy, reinvigorate themselves in the run-up to the next general election, and somehow succeed in wangling a second referendum out of the new Government.
Or that little or none of that happens, because the unwillingness of the Conservatives to concede such a poll, divisions within Scottish nationalism about how to respond, Alex Salmond’s fissiparous departure from the SNP and the party’s dismal record in government have puffed the nationalist balloon to bursting point. In this reading of events, trans self-ID is puncturing it.
Either way, the torch of unionism burns brighter this morning than it has done for some time. One response would be to argue that Sunak has had his first stroke of real political luck since he entered Downing Street as Prime Minister.
His friends may claim that there is no luck to what happened at all: he simply made the right decision. His enemies will counter that Sunak, far from having fallen on his feet, has landed on his head – because the most likely consequence of SNP losses in Scotland are Labour electoral gains. Much depends on how the electoral cookie crumbles. A falling SNP vote could deliver the Tories 2017 general election-type gains, even if the latter’s share is nothing to write home about.
However, Labour will start the next election campaign from second place in more SNP seats, need smaller swings to win their SNP-held marginals…and could power through from third place in some seats if the rise in their vote is big enough.
Luck is as luck does – if there is such a thing, and if you make it yourself. Maybe Sunak, having seen off the Union’s most formidable enemy on his watch, will now start to gain a reputation for luck, and success will duly follow. Is this likely? No. Will Starmer be a bigger winner? Probably. All the same, while what’s good for the Union may not ultimately be good for the Conservatives, capital C, it’s certainly so for conservatives, small c – if they’re unionists, at any rate, not English nationalists.
Few at the start of the year would have expected a Sturgeon resignation, either this early during it or indeed at all. Sunak’s outmanoeuvring of her may not be recognised, but is real nonetheless.