WESTMINSTER is currently prorogued (legally this time) as we await the start of a new parliamentary session next week. On Monday, I spent the day walking around my constituency with council candidates and our local organiser speaking to voters. We had a list of former SNP voters who had not bothered to vote at the Scottish elections last year and we wanted to find out why and to see if we could persuade them to cast their ballots this time round.

The results were instructive. As regards the local elections, former supporters want to see less virtue signalling and more focus on local bread-and-butter issues. On independence, they want to see a campaign with well-thought-through answers that will withstand debate on questions such as who will pay their pension after independence.

This theme was repeated on Tuesday when I attended the funeral of a family friend in the west of Scotland. He was an independence supporter, with many friends and family of the same persuasion. At the purvey, there was much discussion of where the SNP stand after 15 years in government and the message was that people would like to see less hot air and more action.

During the local election campaign, the number one issue voters have raised with me is the cost-of-living crisis. An opinion poll this week showed that Scots believe Holyrood could do more to tackle this issue. Undoubtedly so too could Westminster.

It’s the current biggest challenge for both parliaments, and yet the issue which has dominated the airwaves for the last 10 days is misogyny in Parliament. Regular readers of this column will be aware that I agree there is a problem with misogyny in politics. That has certainly been my experience. However, at a time of national crisis, I think politicians should be focusing less on their own problems and more on those of their constituents.

That said, the hypocrisy surrounding this stooshie really needs closer examination. I have been slack-jawed listening to male politicians bumping their gums about misogyny when the same men have to my certain knowledge at best ignored and at worst participated in the bullying, intimidation, and harassment of women in public life who do not agree that anyone should be able to self-identify as a woman.

Misogyny is “dislike of, contempt for or ingrained prejudice against women” and yet the same men will entertain the argument that it is transphobic to define what a woman is. Worse still, so will some women.

The National: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in February 2021. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images).

Earlier this week, the First Minister (above) refused to define what a woman is and insisted that to do so would oversimplify the gender debate and risk harming trans people. She said she would argue “until my dying breath” that there was “no conflict between women’s rights and trans rights”. Several commentators responded by pointing out that the FM has not actually argued this case other than to dismiss women’s concerns as “not valid”.

Not to be outdone, Ruth Davidson also declined to define what a woman is, describing it as a “gotcha” question and went on to say that the debate over reform of the GRA is polarised and has been oversimplified. Yet if you look at Ruth’s track record at Holyrood and in the House of Lords, she has done nothing to address the complexity of the debate or indeed to encourage debate at all.

When brave SNP and Labour MSPs such as Joan McAlpine and Johann Lamont were trying to address these issues in committee and on the floor of the Holyrood chamber, she was nowhere to be seen. And as their lordships have grappled with the policy issues thrown up by self-identification across the board, from prisons to hospitals, Ruth’s voice has been unusually silent.

Davidson (below) said the issues are nuanced. She is right about that. They require a proper understanding of complex legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. But it is the job of politicians to read and understand the law. You cannot properly reform the existing law if you don’t understand it.

The National: Ruth Davidson

There is in fact nothing “transphobic” about defining what a woman is. The Equality Act passed by a Labour government and supported by the SNP defines a woman as a female of any age. Is that transphobic? In 2014, the Scottish Government proposed to enshrine the protected characteristic of sex in an independent Scotland’s interim constitution. Was that transphobic? Is biology transphobic? When you put it this way you really see how ludicrous what passes for the debate on this issue has become.

You cannot defend women’s rights if you cannot define what a woman is. Likewise, you cannot legislate for trans rights if you are not prepared to define what a trans person is. And the reforms to the Gender Recognition Act don’t do that. The right to self-identification which it is proposed to enshrine in law is not confined to trans people, it is for anyone. This means that any man, whatever his intentions or motivation, can self-identify into the category of women. This is what concerns women like me. It is not trans people we fear, but men, and many of us have the experience of working with survivors of male violence and sexual abuse to know that we are right to be fearful.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has set out in some detail the problems that self-identification could pose for women’s rights in the fields of criminal justice, single-sex spaces, sport and data collection.

READ MORE: Former EHRC legal directors call for it to lose independent status amid trans rights row

It has made it clear that, under the Equality Act, females have a right to single-sex spaces if they are a “proportionate means to achieve a legitimate end”. Such ends include protecting privacy for women in areas such as refuges, changing rooms, rape crisis centres, and prisons and ensuring fairness as well as safety in sport.

The attempt to slander the EHRC’s work on this as transphobic failed when the UN dismissed an unfounded demand by some campaigners on one side of the debate to have its status as a human rights body removed. It is now the responsibility of MSPs to address the EHRC’s well-founded concerns.

However, it is little wonder, given the onslaught on the EHRC and politicians such as me and Rosie Duffield (below), that most of our current MSPs seem reluctant to address the detail of this debate. They are worried about being branded “transphobic”, losing their positions, and receiving violent threats. Based on my personal experience, they are right to be worried.

The National: MP Rosie Duffield (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

However, my personal experience also shows that it’s possible to survive such attacks and to go on arguing for what you believe is right. The tide is turning, with a number of significant legal victories for gender-critical women and increased awareness of the issues, despite the best efforts of some lobbying organisations to have “no debate”.

One council candidate in Edinburgh said they had received more emails on the issue of sex and gender identity than all the other issues put together.

It is a pity that no SNP conference has ever properly debated these issues. It would have been useful to have had a debate of the calibre of the famous Nato membership debate back in 2012.

As things stand, the policy of the SNP is to reform the GRA. I have no difficulty with that. My difficulty is with the policy of self-identification, which was not in the SNP manifesto, and for which our conference has never voted.

So, here’s my challenge to Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson. I’ll debate these issues with you in public. Name the date and the place and I will be there.

As the For Women Scotland group has said: “Asserting you are right and refusing to hear opponents is not an argument.”