Updated at 12:07 p.m. ET on May 10, 2021
Ask people for adjectives to describe Nicola Sturgeon and the same few words tend to crop up: poised, perfectionist, regal. Sturgeon has been Scotland’s first minister for six and a half years, leading its devolved government, and she utterly dominates its political scene. Her approval ratings are majestic, despite her government’s patchy record on health and education—the highest drug-death rate in Europe, falling literacy standards, and an inability to achieve her “defining mission” of closing the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils. Her personal style is iconic: sharply tailored dresses and jackets, towering heels, and a tartan face mask. And her control over the Scottish National Party—whose central political demand is for Scottish independence—is extraordinary. Her husband is the SNP’s chief executive. Potential challengers to her crown have been picked off with sharpshooter precision.
Sturgeon’s path to the history books is clear, although conditional. If she can win a majority of seats in the Scottish elections tomorrow, and if she can use that victory to demand another independence referendum, and if she wins that referendum—then she would become the first leader of an independent Scotland in three centuries.
Another adjective often attached to Sturgeon is feminist. When the Conservative prime minister Theresa May visited Scotland in 2016, Sturgeon tweeted a photograph of the two women shaking hands, with the words “Politics aside—I hope girls everywhere look at this photograph and believe nothing should be off limits for them.” The majority of Sturgeon’s cabinet is female, as is her chief of staff. She is adored by a generation of young female activists: the SNP store once sold Eat, Sleep, Nicola, Repeat T-shirts.
All the more striking, then, to realize that feminist issues are what have recently thrown this most polished of leaders off balance. The first challenge comes from the #MeToo movement, which led to the trial of Alex Salmond, her former boss, mentor, and friend, over allegations of attempted rape and sexual assault last year. (He was acquitted.) Salmond now tells anyone who will listen that his former protégé schemed to bring him down, and has launched a rival pro-independence party, Alba.
Sturgeon’s second challenge comes from debates over the rights of transgender women—an issue that is also causing disquiet and dissent among progressives across the world, including in the United States. In 2019, she received an open letter from women in her own party who claimed they were unable to discuss their rights without being called transphobic bigots. The other side accuses her of not doing enough to crack down on all those transphobic bigots. (In January, Sturgeon posted an unscripted video on Twitter, begging young activists who “consider at this stage the SNP not to be a safe, tolerant, or welcoming place for trans people” to stick with her party.)
Sturgeon’s political story is one of extraordinary, sustained success: No one expects her to be dethroned as first minister this week. But there is an irony in these two subjects causing such problems for a woman who once boasted that she had turned Scotland from a “macho, aggressive country” into a feminist one. The shared goal of independence holds together an electoral coalition and activist base drawn from social liberals and conservatives, pro- and anti-Brexiteers, precarious Millennials and comfortable Boomers, all locked in the perpetual limbo of awaiting another referendum. Battles over feminism have provided a rare chance for a deep well of dissent within the SNP, and within Scottish politics, to spill out into the open.
For years, Sturgeon’s personal power has masked any fissures in her party, leaving them unaddressed and widening. Her reliance on a tight circle of advisers, and the premium placed on loyalty from elected representatives, leaves her trapped in an echo chamber. With no possibility of an alternative party reaching government, the SNP is deprived of the democratic check of strong opposition. Charities and lobbyists, dependent on the party and the government for funding and contracts, tell Sturgeon what she wants to hear—even if public opinion is not with her. Inside the SNP, none of her ministers has anything approaching her public profile.
From more than a dozen interviews with current and former Scottish politicians, both inside and outside the SNP, as well as with journalists, pollsters, academics, and lobbyists, emerged a portrait of a party whose incredible success has itself become a problem. More than a decade in power has left the SNP unused to challenge, and unprepared to handle internal dissent.
Sturgeon has spent most of her career in the shadow of one man: Alex Salmond, her predecessor as SNP leader and Scottish first minister. They could barely be more different. Salmond—swaggering, charismatic, macho—was once prevented from boarding a flight because he had booked the ticket under the name of Star Trek’s rowdy, charming, rule-breaking captain, James T. Kirk. “The average Scot loved that Salmond was so confident,” one person told me. “It’s so un-Scottish.”
That came with a dark side. When he was first publicly accused of sexual assault, in 2018, Salmond summoned Scotland’s journalists to a bar, where he denied the allegations but admitted that he was “no saint.” At the subsequent trial, in March 2020, he said that some allegations were “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose,” while his lawyer conceded that Salmond could have been “a better man on occasions.” The jury cleared him on all 13 charges involving nine women.
Despite the acquittal, the saga looked like a definitive end to an impressive career—and to the political partnership that had united alpha-male Salmond and proud-feminist Sturgeon. In his biographies of the two, the former journalist David Torrance paints a picture of them as complementary forces: Salmond is theatrical, a natural performer; Sturgeon is on top of the details, a naturally shy person who learned how to work a room. (Neither the SNP nor Alba responded to interview requests for their respective leaders.)
In 1990, as a prominent member of the party’s youth wing, Sturgeon backed Salmond for SNP leader. Back then, Scottish politics was dominated by the center-left unionist Labour Party. Sturgeon’s first experience of campaigning, in 1987, saw her local SNP candidate come in fourth. Then in 2007, something switched: The SNP’s rising arc intersected with Labour’s falling one, and for the first time since Scotland gained its own parliament, the SNP became its largest party. Four years later, the SNP gained a majority, triggering an independence referendum in 2014. Although the SNP lost—45 percent to 55 percent—its defeat only made the party more popular: At the 2015 election to the British Parliament, the SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. Labour was reduced to a single member of Parliament.
By that time, Sturgeon was in charge of the party. After Salmond stood down following the referendum, she described him as “a constant support, friend and mentor to me … a hero of our movement, and a champion of our nation.” A year later, after he made an off-color joke, she defended him again: “Alex Salmond is not sexist … I think I would know if he was sexist, and emphatically he is not.”
These words have returned to haunt Sturgeon. Following Salmond’s acquittal, much of the fallout has focused on when she became aware of the specific accusations against him, or more broadly, whether she knew that Salmond had a reputation for overstepping boundaries. The complainants in the trial all came from the small world of Scottish politics—party staff and government officials—and the court heard that civil servants ensured that no women worked alone with Salmond at his residence in the evenings after a complaint about his behavior. (Salmond told the court that he had heard of no such policy.)
Many regard the questioning of Sturgeon’s knowledge, or even complicity, as sexist: a woman being held accountable for a man’s behavior. She has said the same when questions have been raised about her husband’s role as SNP chief executive, and the propriety of a married couple holding the two most-senior positions in one political party. (There’s no easy equivalent in U.S. politics, but imagine if President Joe Biden appointed Jill to be chair of the Democratic National Committee.) Sometimes it can be hard to untangle what scrutiny of Sturgeon is driven by her gender, and what is merely holding power to account.
So far, Scotland appears to be on her side. A survey in early March found that twice as many Scots believed that Sturgeon had told the truth to an independent inquiry about the scandal, compared with Salmond. Most polls showed his new Alba party struggling to make an impression.
There is one quirky thing about Alba, however, and it brings us to Sturgeon’s other feminist problem. Early on, Alba was memorably described by the journalist Alex Massie as “a party for all the people you’ve muted on Twitter,” particularly a cohort of Salmond’s old allies—socially conservative men out of step with the current incarnation of the SNP. And yet two of the early defectors to Alba were the SNP’s former women’s convener, and its former equalities convener. Why were lifelong feminists joining a party led by a man with a reputation as a macho dinosaur, or even a sleazeball?
The debate over sex and gender in Scotland is just as fiery and intractable as it is in the United States.
Across Britain, transgender people are legally protected from discrimination, and transgender women can be treated differently only if it is a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”—such as giving a rape victim the right to see a female doctor, or providing a female-only group for miscarriage support. (Because men are not treated as a protected category in sports or public services, there is less of a fight over the status of trans men.) Scotland, however, has the power to make its own legislation in many areas. With England governed by the right-wing Conservative Party, advancing trans rights has become an important way for the SNP to demonstrate its progressive credentials.
Transgender-rights advocates argue that gender should be a matter of simple self-declaration, with no gatekeeping by doctors. They want to remove any distinction in law and policy regarding trans women, hence the slogan that “trans women are women.” Another group, known as gender-critical feminists—sometimes pejoratively called “TERFs,” or trans-exclusionary radical feminists—wants to carve out exemptions, such as keeping trans women out of female prisons. America is having its own version of this debate, encouraged by Biden signing an executive order that removes barriers to transgender women playing women’s sports and using public facilities. However, the U.S. discussion is more polarized along party lines, with Republicans floating vindictive laws to ban all hormone treatment for children, for example. Uniting to fight such actions has had the effect of squashing discussion within the American left.
In Scotland, the debate has pitted feminists against their own party, and seen them make unprecedented alliances with their political opponents. The gender-critical movement is fighting against an elite consensus (including the leaders of Scotland’s main feminist charities), but not a popular one: Polling suggests that although Scottish voters are amenable to further reforms to protect trans people from abuse and harassment, a majority believe that, say, trans women should not compete in women’s sports.
Cold, factual descriptions of policy positions cannot capture the sheer intensity of this debate, which is reminiscent of the notoriously bitter campaign around the Scottish referendum. That, too, was about questions of personal identity. Who gets to decide if I’m British or Scottish? Who gets to decide if I’m a woman? The author J. K. Rowling, who was born in England but lives in Edinburgh, is a veteran of both battles. She opposed Scottish independence, and has become a standard-bearer for gender-critical feminism. As she wrote last year, she has grown accustomed to “threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned.” The former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told me that, in her assessment, many of the angriest voices against gender-critical feminists like Rowling were male allies of transgender people, rather than transgender people themselves. “I see young women silenced … I see young men emboldened and empowered,” she said.
On the other side, prominent transgender-rights activists report feeling that their very existence is up for debate, and that they are routinely depicted as predators and monsters. One former SNP activist, Teddy Hope, described being verbally abused at political meetings where “photocopies of men taken from the internet were passed with the comments that they had all been convicted of predatory and paedophilic behaviour against women and girls while self-identifying as women.”
The SNP has wholeheartedly supported transgender campaigners. Being at the vanguard of social liberalism chimes with Sturgeon’s vision of an independent Scotland: progressive, caring, perhaps even morally superior to England. “I think instinctively she’s a social democrat who is a nationalist,” former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell told me, “rather than a nationalist who poses as a social democrat, like Alex [Salmond].”
Sometimes, though, there is a clash between these new progressive values and liberalism’s older traditions, which emphasize free speech and robust debate. Take the recent Scottish Hate Crime Bill, which is—by American standards—extraordinarily illiberal. In its proposed form, Scots could be prosecuted for “stirring up hatred,” even if they had not intended to do so, and libraries and bookshops could be prosecuted for loaning or selling “inflammatory material.” Even speech within a private home could be subject to criminal sanctions.
These provisions were later watered down, but even so, some feminist campaigners in Scotland fear the law will further chill discussions of sex and gender. In March, Mary Gordon, a great-niece of the SNP’s founder, chalked a message on a government building in Edinburgh: “Women’s rights are not a hate crime.” Soon after, two uniformed police officers visited her house to warn her that she could be arrested for breach of the peace if she repeated the protest. The backlash to Rowling had already frightened many people and organizations away from any engagement with the subject: In July, a billboard reading only I [heart] JK Rowling was removed from an Edinburgh train station because it was “political” and potentially offensive.
The gender wars have pushed disagreements within the SNP, which are rarely allowed to reach outsiders, into the public eye. Nothing has ever challenged the power of Queen Nicola—and the party’s reputation for lockstep unity—quite like this before. (The SNP even has rules that none of its junior politicians can criticize its policies or the leadership.) Joan McAlpine is the highest-profile feminist SNP dissident at Holyrood, the seat of the Scottish Parliament, while Joanna Cherry fulfills the same role at Westminster. Both signed a “Women’s Pledge” in the fall of 2019, which was followed by an open letter from more than 100 female SNP activists, addressed to Sturgeon, which stated: “We require single-sex spaces in order to be able to participate in public life. Put simply, for reasons of bodily boundaries and trauma, we cannot share female-only spaces with male people regardless of their personalities, dress sense, identities etc.”*
Sturgeon was unmoved. In January, she warned that discussions of women’s issues had become “a cover for transphobia,” adding: “I am a life-long feminist … But as a woman I know the threat to my safety is from abusive men; it is not from trans women.” She put out an election video on April 18 that began, “Hi there, I’m Nicola Sturgeon and my chosen pronouns are she and her,” reiterating that point. Not coincidentally, the young activists who are the keenest on gender self-identification are also the most fervent supporters of Scottish independence.
One SNP politician told me, however, that Sturgeon’s Twitter plea to young activists not to leave the party was “putting a target” on those who had taken the opposite view. Caroline McAllister, the former SNP women’s convener, was among those women. She left for Alba because it was, she told me, “the one political space where women can speak freely about their concerns about gender ideology and the changes in our definition [of what a woman is]. It’s a safe space where we can use our language to describe our experiences.” More than half of Alba’s candidates are female, and the party had a meeting to set out its policy on single-sex spaces where no one was called a “TERF.”
But is Salmond really the right person to lead such a party? McAllister chose her words carefully: “I think Alex Salmond is a very capable and experienced politician. We are moving into dangerous territory when we do not accept a jury’s verdict.” And would trans people be welcome in Alba? “Absolutely, yes. Without a shadow of a doubt.”
Whether they would want to join, of course, is another matter. The charge against gender-critical feminism is that it is fundamentally reactionary, an attempt to enforce old-fashioned ideas of what a woman or a man is. The defection of gender-critical feminists to Alba positions them alongside older men for whom the new party is a refuge from “wokeness.”
Salmond “is trying to rehabilitate himself into political life by using women’s rights as a campaign issue,” Catriona Stewart wrote in The Herald, a Scottish newspaper. “If you believe the theory that Mr Salmond is trying to re-enter political life in order to take down his female rival, then the ploy becomes all the more obscene.”
The whole thing, Stewart argued, using a piquant Scottish word for “fights,” risked leaving the ambivalent majority of the Scottish population “further alienated as they look on aghast at yet more unproductive rammies.”
Scotland’s landscape is wild and expansive: rugged islands, jagged mountains, moors covered in mustard-yellow gorse. But the population is 70 times smaller than that of the United States. In a country of 5.5 million voters, pick any two people from the political bubble—journalists, politicians, and government officials—and there is a reasonable chance they will at some point have worked together, gotten drunk together, or slept together. “I’ve never felt Scotland as small as it feels right now,” Mandy Rhodes, the editor of the political magazine Holyrood, told me. “We’re all separated by very few steps.” (As one example, the lawyer who represented Salmond at his trial used to be a Labour politician. He lost his seat in 2007 to … Sturgeon.)
Rhodes compared the current atmosphere to Labour’s heyday in the late ’90s, when critical journalists were frozen out, or even regarded as traitors. “The thing that’s missing is joy. There’s no uplifting argument at the moment; everything feels really angry, pretty dismal.” She recently wrote a column arguing that Sturgeon had replaced Scotland’s “old boys’ network” with an “old girls’ network”—that limiting power to a tight circle, and treating all dissent with hostility, was no more appealing when women were doing it. One academic told me that Sturgeon surrounded herself not with yes-men, but with “Yes Women.” Cherry and McAlpine, the two most outspoken and high-profile internal party critics, have been ruthlessly marginalized by the SNP hierarchy: Cherry was sacked from the party’s senior team at Westminster, while McAlpine lost her place at the top of a candidate list after an SNP committee ruled that it should go to someone who identified as disabled.
What is driving the SNP’s behavior? In the case of equality legislation, many of its activists believe that gender self-identification is the great civil-rights struggle of our time. Another explanation is that the party’s hegemony is so assured that its leaders live in a hall of mirrors, with NGOs and lobbyists reflecting their own opinions back at them. Big charities rely on the Scottish government for the bulk of their income, encouraging them not to rock the boat. It was considered radical when McAlpine invited grassroots feminist groups and gender-critical academics to give evidence about recording sex data in the census—instead of relying solely on charities such as Engender, which receives £275,000 of its yearly £355,000 income from the government. She had broken the hall of mirrors.
In this analysis, the sex-and-gender debate is merely an unusually incendiary example of a wider phenomenon. McConnell, the former first minister who now sits in the House of Lords, told me that he had tried to persuade the Scottish government to reopen schools after Britain’s first pandemic lockdown and “hit a brick wall.” A senior SNP figure privately advised him that the only way to shift Sturgeon’s position was to go public, so he did. Then, after newspapers started to run hostile coverage and public opinion shifted, Sturgeon changed course. This was “not good policy making,” McConnell said.
The second charge is that the focus on equality legislation reflects the SNP’s inability to make headway on other policy areas. For example, it will not meet its flagship pledge to close the educational attainment gap between rich and poor pupils for another 35 years, on current trends. Put crudely, passing hate-crime legislation is cheaper than improving public services, and gives a government an appealing story to tell about its values. That helps when the SNP is stuck in a holding pattern, in government at Holyrood but chafing at the limits of its power within a united Britain.
I heard three constant refrains during my reporting. The first was a desire to speak anonymously, given the power of the SNP. As one lobbyist told me, only half-joking, “I have to be careful, or I’ll never work in this town again.” The second was the claim that Sturgeon’s #GirlBoss persona was more impressive than her feminist policy record. The final refrain, coming even from the first minister’s most ardent critics, was that none of this matters to the SNP’s electoral prospects, as long as another independence referendum remains on the horizon. The current state of suspended animation might be wonderful for Nicola Sturgeon’s party, but it is deeply corrosive to political debate in Scotland.
* This article previously misstated that more than 100 female members of the SNP signed a “Women’s Pledge” in the fall of 2019. In fact, the members signed an open letter addressed to Nicola Sturgeon, from which the quote about single-sex spaces is taken.