Blocking Scottish gender bill is no affront to devolution

The uproar over Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill has fallen into two camps: the debate over trans rights and the nature of national devolution in the United Kingdom.

Whereas the former is a complex and morally fraught one with no simple answer, the latter is pretty clear-cut.

The UK Conservative Government’s decision to block the bill’s passage to royal assent is done in accordance with the very laws that establish devolution, in both practice and theory. Introduced by Labour and backed by the SNP, the process is necessary because of its effect on the rest of the country.

The irony is that these fervent, self-proclaimed defenders of devolution are the ones undermining it. The SNP don’t believe in devolution but independence and were slapped down by the Supreme Court for overstepping the mark with trying to legislate for a referendum on the constitution, which is a reserved matter.

They are the ones opening up quasi-embassies. You may also remember them actively undermining the UK Government’s position when trying to leave the European Union.

I believe everyone, inside or outside Scotland, know these deflection tactics by now – reach for the folder that forces independence on to the agenda and move focus away from the SNP’s woeful record on the three big beasts that really matter to people – health, education, and the economy.

Respecting devolution works both ways. Devolved parliaments should not seek to operate in reserved matters and they shouldn’t make laws that will have a negative impact on the way the whole UK works. That is how the devolved settlement works. To support devolution must come hand-in-hand with this understanding.

And while it is understandable why parties like the SNP and Plaid Cymru are fanning the flames, trying to make this look like some kind of attack on nationhood by Westminster as part of their separatist mission, the Labour Party doesn’t know what to do.

Not only are they unable to find a common opinion on the trans issue itself – the definition of a woman – but they can’t find a common position on the bill either.

Starmer said he wanted to look at legal advice. Some Labour MPs are in favour, some against. Rosie Duffield was shouted down by men on her own benches for making a passionate defence of the need to protect female spaces from bad actors. Welsh Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi said she supports the Conservatives stepping in.

Yet, the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay said the move to block the law sets a “very dangerous precedent” for devolution.

What precedent is that? That the UK Government will make use of its lawful provisions as set out in accordance with the Act that established devolution? It hardly amounts to an affront to democracy.

Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has even said he would seek the powers from the UK Government so they could pass the same law. That’s great use of the Senedd’s time – passing a law you know will get blocked for its negative implications on UK-wide equalities legislation. Surely it would be better to pass the Clean Air Act that has been long promised but never delivered.

It also just shows that, in his quest for No. 10, Starmer would prefer if his parties in Scotland and Wales did not exist. They are a constant source of discord, like we’re seeing in this debate, or embarrassment, especially in Wales where Labour is running health, education, transport, housing, and economic development so cluelessly.

Yes, I have concerns around the bill. Many trans people have gone through a lot of trauma and their human rights must be protected and enhanced.

But this is a hugely flawed bill. Can we ignore the effect this will have on women-only spaces? Can we really allow 16 year-olds to take life-altering hormones but not buy alcohol? Can we ignore the fact that half of trans prisoners in Scotland became trans when in jail?

If we are to have a debate about this bill across the UK, let’s focus on the real issues for women, young people, and the trans community, not the imaginary grievances of those who have a political interest in making Westminster the bogeyman.

Andrew RT Davies MS is the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives