YESTERDAY, the Conservative government in Westminster pressed the nuclear button and employed a so-called Section 35 order to prevent the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill – which received parliamentary approval last month – from receiving Royal Assent, thus blocking it from passing into law.

Section 35 is a hitherto unused provision of the Scotland Act which gives the Secretary of State for Scotland the power to block any bill passed by the Scottish Parliament from receiving Royal Assent, even if that bill relates to a devolved matter, if he or she believes that it might impinge upon the operation of reserved issues.

Alister Jack has taken this step, citing the impact of the bill on the UK Equalities Act, passed by Westminster in 2010. The Scottish Government strongly refutes this claim, and insists that the bill will have no effect at all on the operation and implementation of the Equalities Act.

The issue has now set off a major constitutional row and the stage is set for a legal battle between the Scottish and British governments. The Scottish Government is expected to apply for a judicial review to challenge Jack's decision.

The Scottish Government will certainly point out in its submission that self-ID for transgender people is in operation in 18 other countries, including Ireland and Belgium, and the UK authorities accept gender recognition certificates issued by those jurisdictions. The onus is thus on Alister Jack to explain why the new Scottish system is so egregiously different from the systems in place in those other countries that it is uniquely unacceptable to the UK authorities.

Whatever your views on this bill, it was passed by Holyrood with a substantial cross-party majority, and underwent the normal procedures of debate and scrutiny which any bill in Holyrood is subjected to. Indeed, given the controversy which surrounded the bill, it is arguable that it received greater scrutiny than most bills passed by Holyrood. The normal operation of democracy demands that this bill passes into law.

However, this is no longer about the narrow issue of gender recognition. Despite their claims to the contrary, the Conservatives are cynically using a culture wars issue in order to further hobble the power of the Scottish Parliament, the most powerful institution in the UK which they do not control, and which possesses a democratic mandate entirely independent of the British Government.

No party which introduced and continues to defend the rape clause and which is responsible for attacks on social security benefits and public services which are disproportionately relied upon by women can plausibly claim to be acting to protect the rights and dignity of women.

What is really happening here is that the Conservatives are seeking to block a devolved law which they do not like, and if they are successful in this instance, they will have established a precedent and will use this previously unthinkable measure again and again. No legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament will be safe.

We saw a similar process with the Sewel Convention which states that Westminster will not interfere with the powers of the Scottish Parliament without the express consent of Holyrood. The Better Together parties vowed to write this convention into the Scotland Act, but then included the weasel phrasing “will not normally interfere”.

“Not normally” has now been so widened in its definition that it has become meaningless, and the Conservative government in Westminster feels free to introduce legislation that impinges on devolved matters whenever it feels like it, most recently with its Levelling Up Act, which gives Westminster the power to make spending decisions on devolved matters in Scotland and Wales, with no input from the Scottish Parliament.

If the Conservatives are successful in blocking this bill, they will be giving themselves a veto over all Scottish legislation – a veto which they will be emboldened to deploy more and more frequently, and will reduce the Scottish Parliament to a toothless talking shop which is only able to make laws which have the approval of the Conservatives, a party which Scotland has rejected at the ballot box for generations.

Douglas Ross and his minority band of girners will effectively have control of Holyrood even though they do not come remotely close to possessing a majority.

So this issue is no longer about gender recognition, just like the way in which Westminster has blocked the Scottish Parliament from holding another independence referendum. This is about democracy itself in Scotland. This is yet another democratic outrage inflicted upon Scotland by a Conservative Party which has not won an election in Scotland since 1955.

This piece is an extract from today’s REAL Scottish Politics newsletter, which is emailed out at 7pm every weekday with a round-up of the day's top stories and exclusive analysis from the Wee Ginger Dug.

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