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U.K. blocks Scottish gender ID bill

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.K. government has initiated a constitutionally significant clash with the government in Scotland when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak decided to block legislation that was recently passed by Scotland's Parliament. Now, the conflict centers around a new law focused on gender identity, but the implications for Britain's constitutional future may be even more significant. To understand this in a little more detail, we're joined now by London-based journalist Willem Marx. Hey, Willem.

WILLEM MARX: Hey.

CHANG: So basically, what would this new Scottish law actually do?

MARX: Well, it's designed to make it easier for individuals born in Scotland or those who qualify as resident of Scotland to legally identify as a specific gender of their choice without having to undergo a medical examination. The government in Scotland will issue an individual with what's known as a gender recognition certificate, which, as a document, allows that person to change their legal sex on their birth certificate, as well as their marriage certificate and even their death certificate. The law's intended also to speed up the process whereby an individual can change the gender with which they identify, and it will also lower the age at which people can start this process to 16.

CHANG: OK. And then how does all of that now set off an issue with the U.K. constitution?

MARX: Well, what this law would mean is that someone either born in Scotland or living there for a period of time would have to meet a lower threshold to change their gender legally than someone born or resident in another part of the U.K., like England or Wales or Northern Ireland. And what the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has essentially argued this week is that such a disparity would undermine U.K.-wide legislation on gender equality. Someone with a Scottish gender recognition certificate might in theory be able to use that document for various reasons in the U.K. without having undergone a medical examination, whereas someone from, say, England would still require an exam. A person could essentially be one gender legally on one side of the Scottish-English border and then another gender legally a mile away across that border. And so the U.K. government has issued an order that allows the U.K., the British Parliament in Westminster in London, to prevent the legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh from becoming law.

CHANG: So interesting. What is the relationship like between these two different Parliaments? Like, how unusual is this kind of dispute?

MARX: Well, kind of a brief history lesson, I guess. You've got to go back to Tony Blair being prime minister in the late 1990s. It was his government that instituted reforms that created a Scottish Parliament. It would allow it to have control over very specific areas of life in Scotland, like health care, like education, but with the caveat that if the Parliament in Scotland tried to pass a law that would impact existing U.K.-wide laws, the government down in London could essentially block them. This is the first time a U.K. government's ever issued one of those orders. And so there are ramifications for the relationship between these two Parliaments that may ultimately, I guess, be decided in the country's courts.

CHANG: OK. So that's kind of the legal landscape. But what about the politics surrounding this whole situation?

MARX: Well, much of the ruling majority in the Scottish Parliament is controlled by the Scottish National Party. They want Scotland to be independent of the rest of the U.K. It's been a long-running campaign. And although this legislation was massively polarizing, even when it narrowly passed through the Scottish Parliament, it sort of split up the various political parties in that Parliament. The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, says this decision by Rishi Sunak undermines Scotland's democracy. She called it essentially an attack on the Scottish Parliament. And the issue, she said, would almost certainly end up in court. Meanwhile, the U.K. government's saying it did not take this decision lightly. And in fact, it's essentially left open the possibility that legislation could go back to the Scottish Parliament, could get amended, and this dispute itself could then, it says, end.

CHANG: That is Willem Marx in London. Thank you so much.

MARX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx