Gender recognition bill Scotland: pollster John Curtice on what the UK Government ruling means for IndyRef2

Nicola Sturgeon has said it is inevitable that there will be a judicial review after the UK government announced it would block the controversial Gender Recognition Bill.

The UK Government’s intervention in Scotland’s Gender Recognition Bill is unlikely to have an immediate impact on Scottish independence polling, according to one of the country’s leading political scientists.

The latest political row between the Scottish and UK governments now means a judicial review in court could be on the horizon.

The bill has been highly controversial and was hotly debated in and out of Holyrood before being passed by the Scottish parliament in December. But yesterday (16 January) the UK government announced that it would block the Gender Recognition Reform bill under a Section 35 ruling.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC it will "inevitably" end up in court – a similar scenario her government faced a few months ago when the argument for a second vote on Scottish independence was heard in the Supreme Court. Despite losing the Supreme Court case, the aftermath saw a small boost in the polls for the Yes side, but pollsters are not convinced a similar boost is immediately likely after the latest intervention by the UK government.

We spoke with election guru Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and senior research fellow at the Scottish Centre for Social Research, to find out what the impact of the UK Government’s overruling of the Scottish parliament means for Scottish independence polling.

‘Not a simple SNP versus Tories issue’

The Gender Recognition Reform bill, which was passed on 22 December by the Scottish parliament, would see the process in which trans people go through to legally change their gender shortened and simplified. It also brought the legal age of those seeking to change their gender down from 18 to 16.

Despite intense opposition the bill passed by 86 votes to 39 and was supported by cross party members, including three Scottish Conservatives members and 18 Scottish Labour MSPs. Because of the cross party support for the bill, Professor Curtice said it’s “more complicated” than “a simple SNP versus Tories issue” which puts the UK Government in a weaker position.


It has also allowed Nicola Sturgeon to develop her argument about Scottish democracy being under threat and undermined. Speaking to the BBC, the First Minister said: “They’re undermining devolution, they’re undermining Scottish democracy, but they’re also weaponizing a stigmatised, vulnerable, often marginalised group in our society.”

And in a Tweet posted yesterday (16 January) after the announcement, she said: “This is a full-frontal attack on our democratically elected Scottish Parliament and its ability to make its own decisions on devolved matters.”

Professor Curtice says it's the "same argument she [Sturgeon] used for the Supreme Court ruling", adding: “Maybe there might be a short term bounce like after the Supreme Court ruling but I don’t think we should expect any immediate medium term impact.”

The impact on Scottish Independence polling

The aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling meant a slight bounce in the polls for the Yes movement with the Yes side leading in six recent consecutive polls, according to data published by What Scotland Thinks. However, the last poll (conducted 21 December) put the Yes side back down to 49% and No at 51%.


Whether the latest row between Holyrood and Westminster has any impact on attitudes towards Scottish independence is yet to be determined, but Professor Curtice says there is potential for the SNP to make a case about the current state of devolution. He believes the SNP needs to be more successful in persuading people there is a wider story.

“There is obviously potential for the SNP to create a narrative that the UK Government is disrespectful of existing devolution and this fits into a wider argument,” he says. “It’s an argument which I think the SNP has to win to a greater extent than they are doing so, and it looks as though on the polling that the short term impact of the Supreme Court ruling is wearing off and we’re getting back to 50/50.

“Can they [the SNP] persuade people that the current devolution settlement does not provide Scotland with an adequate framework within which to make its own decisions?”

“But that, I think, is an argument that I think needs to be developed and pursued, and pursued with greater vigour and success than what the SNP has managed to do so far.”