Tuesday 24 January 2023

The SNP's incoherence on gender had to be stopped


When the majority of Scottish voters chose devolution, they did not choose Scottish independence. If there had been a vote for Scottish independence at that time Scottish nationalists would have struggled to get 30%. It was therefore clear to everyone at the time that Holyrood was subordinate to Westminster.

Of course there was a lot of nonsense at the time about restoring the Parliament that Scotland had lost in 1707. Labour and the Lib Dems were willing to play at being soft nationalists because they thought it would appease the hard nationalists. There was even an attempt more symbolic than legal to claim that the Scottish people were sovereign and that the Claim of Right 1689 (a document riddled with anti-Catholicism with the intent of preventing a Catholic coming to the Scottish throne) still applied as if Scotland were still independent.

Donald Dewar thought that by pretending that Holyrood brought back what was lost he would so to speak imitate the Corries with their Flower of Scotland which when written appealed to Scots who could wistfully dream of a lost land that was independent without actually really wanting it to come back again.

This is the same romanticism that we find in Walter Scott’s Waverley, Redgauntlet, Rob Roy and The tale of Old Mortality. We sang “will you no come back again”, but we didn’t actually want him to come back least of all when the post Jacobite Scottish enlightenment brought with it prosperity, literature, philosophy and briefly made Edinburgh the intellectual centre of Europe.

But there was always a polite fiction about Scotland. We could pretend that we were a country just like any other country when we played England at rugby or Brazil at football. We could think that it was unfair if Scotland voted Labour but got a Tory Government, while it was not unfair if an equally populous area of the UK for instance the South East voted Tory but got a Labour Government. Some people called Scots were more equal than other people, because we were from a country. It wasn’t very democratic was it?

At its heart therefore devolution was a nationalist project, which intended to blunt nationalism.

Even so by calling Holyrood an Assembly and its ruling body the Scottish Executive, it was made clear to everyone that the Scottish Assembly was not sovereign and Scotland was not independent. But the fiction that Holyrood was something that it wasn’t was maintained because it had been baked in with the soft nationalism that set it up in the first place.

This fiction became still more fictional when the SNP gained control over the Executive and immediately set about rebranding it as a government. From then on the SNP acted as if it were ruling an independent Scotland while at the same time continually to seek independence. But you cannot become what you already are. This is the contradiction at the heart of Scottish nationalism.

Most cleverly the SNP maintained the fiction that Scotland was independent even after it lost the referendum in 2014. It is for this reason above all that it has described Westminster’s refusal to allow the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill to become law as undemocratic.

Words matter. The essence of the Bill is that the word “woman” can be applied to people with male anatomy and vice versa if they wish it. But words are not private things that mean what I want them to mean as if we were all Humpty Dumpty. I cannot chose to describe grass as red even if I feel that it is. I cannot describe a woman as a “homme” while learning French. My teacher will correct me. No that’s a femme. It has nothing to do with what I feel.

The absurdity of the transgender argument is not merely that it requires us to believe in a contradiction, that a man can be a woman, which is the equivalent of believing p and not p. More importantly it undermines the very concept of language as a social activity with shared objective definitions of words. If people could decide for themselves what ordinary words meant, then there would be no shared language space and no language at all.

But Westminster is equally culpable. It too has allowed the polite fiction that men can become women and allows them even to change the sex on their birth certificate. You may as well allow people to change the history of what happened in 1066 to maintain that the Normans lost and were driven into the sea.

But is it undemocratic for Westminster to overrule the Scottish Parliament? Obviously not. The Bill that set up devolution had a clause that allowed Westminster to overrule. Each Scot also has a vote at a General Election. Westminster is sovereign and can repeal the Scotland Act if it wished. The Scottish Parliament is not sovereign, despite the fiction.

But even if Scotland were independent and its parliament sovereign there might be circumstances where a law it passed might be overruled. The SNP wants to join the EU, but the EU has all sorts of rules which prevent countries passing laws that are contrary to EU rules. There are also various international treaties and acts that the UK has signed up to which limit the democratic rights of Westminster. We saw this when it tried to send refugees to Rwanda.

In every democracy in the world where there are levels of government from the national to the federal to the local there are times when elected bodies are unable to pass laws they wish to. In the United States the Supreme Court until lately banned states from forbidding abortion. When this changed and states regained the right to make their own laws on abortion, Nicola Sturgeon was outraged. But isn’t it undemocratic to forbid the legislature in Texas to forbid abortion when a majority wishes it? Where is the difference?

Scotland has a parliament with limited powers. We voted for devolution not independence. It is only the fiction, maintained by perhaps the majority of Scots including many Pro UK people that Scotland is somehow still an independent country because after all we can take on Brazil at football, that makes people think it is undemocratic if a parliament with limited powers is overruled. How on earth can it be undemocratic when one of the limits we voted for when we chose devolution was that Westminster could overrule if it thought it was necessary for the good of the whole of the UK?

We are in an awful muddle not merely about Scotland’s status as a country with a government. The fiction of the UK being a country made up of countries is itself a contradiction unless the word “country” is used in different senses.

But the muddle about gender if allowed to continue is liable to subjectify everything. There is no real distinction between sex and gender. To suppose that I can be female objectively but a man subjectively undercuts my very ability to define what a man is. If people with female anatomy can be men, how can I define what a man is?

It will be impossible to limit this once we allow words to be defined privately and subjectively. But Wittgenstein’s “Private Language Argument” decisively shows the incoherence of doing so. If I can subjectively define that I am a man though I am objectively female, I can logically define myself as being old even if I am only 20. I can define myself as black even if my skin colour is pale pink, I can define myself as a lesbian even though I have only ever slept with men.

Holyrood might as well have passed a bill that squares can become round. It doesn’t matter if such a bill has majority support and to describe it as undemocratic to stop it becoming law is to suppose that it is somehow unfair that squares can’t choose to be round. This is the level of the muddle in Scottish politics. No law that is incoherent should be passed, because it undermines the concept of law not merely in the UK but everywhere else too.