As Sunak crosses the Rubicon, Londoners protest Section 35

by Ewan Forrest

On the 17th and 18th of January this author attended protests in Whitehall against the impending use of Section 35 of the Scotland Act to scrap Holyrood’s new Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill. These protests were organised by LGBT people in London, and Heckle strongly encourages our readers to attend future protests organised in Scotland, England, and elsewhere. This move by the Westminster Tories would outright forbid Holyrood from submitting the passed bill for royal assent, thereby preventing it from becoming law. Never in the history of Scottish devolution has this manoeuvre been resorted to. Far from a careless blunder, this is precisely the thought process in 10 Downing Street. By setting the precedent of a Section 35 intervention, Sunak and the Tories are giving themselves leeway to undermine future Scottish legislation at will. What better scapegoat to start this ball rolling than trans people, who are already vilified in the press and won’t be defended by the Opposition?

Transgender, non-binary, and otherwise gender non-conforming people have been described as a ‘political football’ kicked between Holyrood and Westminster, but this doesn’t quite capture the full issue. The hatred borne by many elected officials, journalists, and TERF activists for this community is genuine. Many trans, non-binary, and other LGBT comrades spoke at the open mic on Tuesday opposite Downing Street, braving the cold to talk about their experiences with Gender Recognition Certificate bureaucracy, bigotry and hate crimes, tragic losses and inspiring new members of the community.

This author could not help but be moved at the descriptions of comrades lost to a hateful society, or at the presence of an original founder of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) who spoke so passionately about the parallels between moral panics of his youth and today. Although a small and highly impromptu gathering organised over Twitter, the love and solidarity on display and the chance to get trans concerns across unfiltered to the large press presence was a warming presence on such a cold day.

The next evening saw a similar frigid temperature, this time after dark albeit with a much higher turnout and palpable energy. The last hangers-on at a Royal College of Nurses strike demo blended into the Section 35 protest at the same location on Whitehall, creating a jovial atmosphere. The protest ended up blocking the road and was loud, angry, and joyous. Like the previous day, the majority of the attendees were from the London LGBT+ activist scene with no planned speakers. Some of the Labour Party MPs who had broken the whip and voted against Section 35’s implementation attended, including Zarah Sultana, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, and Nadia Whittome. The latter was passed a megaphone between rounds of chants, making hers one of the few full speeches in contrast to the previous day.

LGBT+ solidarity and commitment to trans rights was at the forefront of the protest, although there was somewhat little discussion of the issue as an attack also on Scottish democracy. An honourable exception to this was the excellent speech by Alice Martin explicitly linking the two issues. This naturally reflects the priorities of most LGBT+ movements in southern England, but presents us in the national independence movements with a gap we ought to bridge.

Although the bill was resoundingly passed in Holyrood in December, the opposition and their petty delaying tactics inside the chamber were motivated by deliberate misunderstandings of the GRR and open anti-trans bigotry. There is a direct through line between the display we witnessed in December, spearheaded by the Scottish Conservatives, and Rishi Sunak’s decision. In both cases, the Tories knew full well that the bill would pass in any democratic vote, so they had to resort to methods outwith democratic scrutiny. Sunak no doubt sought the advice of these Scottish Tories and culture warriors in his party when making his move. Starmer’s Labour no doubt had similar conversations in their own halls of power, although Sir Keir’s particular brand of cowardice tends towards inaction in most cases. We are thus left with a Tory party committed to attacking the foundations of Scottish democracy, while the ‘party of devolution’ sits idly by.

The implications of this move for the Scottish constitution and for the LGBT community across these islands ought to be viewed in tandem. From Sunak’s perspective, this is an almost entirely opportunistic gambit. He saw this chance come across his desk, most likely put there by party hardliners, and thought “two birds, one stone”. The devolved government and independence movement in Scotland is a routine source of embarrassment for the Tories, and the trans community are the moral panic du jour among the British establishment. Through this decision, however, comes an opportunity of our own. When two birds are attacked with one stone, those birds have an immediate interest in becoming friends. There is already significant overlap within Scotland, but the movements for national independence and for LGBT+ liberation across these islands have never had a more obvious need to work together. The British ruling class view us both as demons to be exorcised, as evidenced by this move in Whitehall.

For our part in the independence movement, this must involve unequivocal solidarity with the LGBT+ community and supporting the community not just when their issues overlap with national constitutional questions. Some sections of our movement are already quite advanced in this regard. It must also involve, however, the total rejection of sections of the movement set up as transphobic vehicles (e.g. the Alba Party) or who position themselves as moral panic-mongers (e.g. Wings Over Scotland, Joanna Cherry, etc). The apologetics already happening within Alba over Sunak’s decision border on comical; readers will do well to see how far transphobic hate can make an allegedly pro-independence party accept unilateral London rule. Such ‘allies’ of national independence are best discarded in favour of stronger solidarities.

Sunak has crossed a Rubicon with this decision, putting the British government on track to attack Scottish legislation further. The Labour Party looks set to fail us from day one, as it has with so many issues. Once again, the movements for national independence have a pivotal role to play. The British state has no desire or institutional capacity to make life decent or liveable for anyone but the ruling class. It is up to our collective strength, therefore, to build a republic that will.



Ewan Forrest is an activist in the Republican Socialist Platform and a member of the Heckle editorial board. He is from Edinburgh but is currently based in London, teaching history and organising within the National Education Union.



to get Heckle delivered to your inbox