SNP opposition to gender recognition reform should be ‘respected’, Commons leader says | Scottish National party (SNP)

Scottish National party politicians’ opposition to gender recognition reform should be “respected like any other conscience issue”, according to its new Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn.

Discussing the issue that has convulsed the SNP since he was elected Westminster group leader in December, the Aberdeen South MP said: “Ultimately, they are a member of the Scottish National Party just as much as I am”.

It contrasts with the view of his Westminster colleague Alyn Smith, who last week suggested SNP rebels should quit and stand as independents, and is arguably more ameliorative than the party leader and first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who has suggested some opponents “used women’s rights” to cloak their bigotry.

“Within any political parties, there has to be space for people to disagree and to disagree without being disagreeable. I think that’s incredibly important,” Flynn said.

Flynn, 34, supports Holyrood’s bill to simplify how an individual changes their legal gender, which was blocked from going for royal assent last month by the UK government.

But he added there was “understandable public concern” regarding two recent high-profile cases of sex offenders who began their transition after committing their crimes seeking accommodation in a women’s prison.

A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times Scotland, published on Sunday and after Flynn spoke to the Guardian, shows support for the SNP has fallen to its lowest in five years – potentially a reflection of voters’ concerns over the handling of the ongoing gender row, though it did not ask specific questions on this.

In a wide-ranging interview, Flynn – who entered the Commons at the last election in 2019 – set out his immediate strategy after a turbulent period in which he beat the Sturgeon loyalist Alison Thewlis to lead the Westminster bloc. It followed repeated attempts within the group to oust former leader Ian Blackford and prompted several frontbench resignations.

He plans “assertive” use of Commons process to challenge the UK government, recently filing a “prayer” motion, backed by opposition MPs across the devolved nations, to try to annul the section 35 order blocking Holyrood’s gender bill.

Flynn said section 35 must be viewed in the context that “no matter where we turn, this UK government is not interested in including the devolved parliaments in the decision-making process”, referencing the post-Brexit internal market, EU retained law bill and now strike legislation.

“That’s the point that we need to convey to the people of Scotland. Where does this road take us?”

At the age of 34, alongside his deputy, 28-year-old Mhairi Black, Flynn marks a distinct generational shift and with it a more urgent approach to independence. He said this was “an opportunity “to speak to those younger voters who we know are massively in favour of Scottish independence and say: ‘We’re here and we’re leading this movement too, so let’s get on and do it’”.

Coming of age in the devolution era, Flynn also credits his experience of long-term disability as having shaped his values: he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis as a teenager, enduring chronic pain and depending on walking aids until a “life-changing” hip replacement in 2020.

Flynn has already shown himself capable of “disagreeing agreeably” with the party leadership, for example backing the development of the Cambo oilfield, which the first minister has opposed.

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While he said the presumption against future extraction “makes sense”, with family members working in the oil and gas industry Flynn added that “what has been missed in the discussion around the [Scottish government’s energy strategy published last month] is what it actually means for Aberdeen in the medium to long term”.

Politicians had a challenge to ensure that sub-sea skills and expertise could be transferred to jobs in the renewables industry, Flynn said. “I don’t want us to become the Detroit of Europe,” he said, referencing the former carmaking capital of the US.

Similarly, Flynn pledged his support to running the next general election as a de facto referendum – after the supreme court ruled that only the UK government could allow another poll – just as the SNP leadership appeared to row back from this with a longer-term Holyrood election option. Both will be discussed at a special party conference in March.

After lengthy consideration, said Flynn, his conclusion was: “Let’s just get on with it.” He added: “Hope is a big thing at the moment because life is grim for a lot of folk and we should take that to the public as soon as we possibly can.”

He is confident that the party can win more than 50% of the vote – “hopefully we’ll get much more” – and in that scenario “I’ll be expecting to sit down with whomever the prime minister is, probably Keir Starmer, and say: ‘You’ve got to respect the mandate of the Scottish people here.’”

This may come as a surprise to Sturgeon, who may anticipate having that conversation herself, but fortunately they had – despite much speculation to the contrary – a “positive, encouraging, engaging” relationship, said Flynn.

He was upfront in acknowledging that independence was “an incredibly divisive issue”.

“We’ve got to be conscious of the fact that a big chunk of people in Scotland don’t want to be independent, and we have to reach out to them and take them with us.”

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