This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Barely a week in the job, and First Minister John Swinney is already grappling with the big question. 

How to improve the economy? Cut crime? Achieve Scottish independence? Well, those things are all in his in-tray, but yesterday he was confronted with the one all politicians have to answer eventually: What is a woman?

As father of three who’s been married twice, and an SNP front-bencher who served in government during the tumultuous row over Gender Recognition Reform (GRR), this is a subject Mr Swinney has presumably given a lot of time to figuring out.  

It’s one that other political leaders, such as Sir Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson and even Donald Trump have had to face, and is now a regular pitfall when it comes to political interviews.  

The crux of the question, of course, is not to find out if the interviewee is confused on the topic, but to see where they fall on the debate over the rights of transgender people.  

Give the wrong answer, and one or the other side of the culture war front will be calling for an imminent cancellation, spamming social media with declamatory denunciations and general ill-will.  

Read more:

Letter of the DayWe will win the struggle for trans rights

So Mr Swinney was on the spot speaking to the BBC on Monday – and gave it his best go. He said: “I believe a woman is an adult female born as a woman,” ...and you could almost sense keyboards being prepped by the rainbow warriors out there to pelter the poor politician for his perfidy... before he added, “and I also accept that transgender women are defined as women”.  

So that’s cleared that up. 

John Swinney has said he wants to take the SNP back to the 'moderate centre left', and here was his political philosophy in action. Straddling the middle lane and probably not pleasing everyone, but not upsetting them too much.  

His answer did lead to some grumbling from the Conservatives, who claimed he was ‘tying himself in knots’, while Chris McEleny, the general secretary of the Alba Party, said the First Minister had “decided to stand in the middle of the road”. 

But isn’t that the natural place for a centrist? In any event, the answer Mr Swinney gave was little different from those his colleagues in leadership uttered when picking apart this particular poser.  

Sir Keir Starmer, speaking to the media last year, was adroit. He said: “a woman is an adult female, so let’s clear that one up”.  

This was a slight update on his previous position in 2022, when he used the Swinney-esque line “A woman is a female adult and, in addition to that, trans women are women, and that is not just my view, that is actually the law”. 

Donald Trump initially refused to answer the question when it was brought up during a discussion on transgender athletes.  

Read more:

UnspunDoes Holyrood need more MSPs?

But he added: “A woman is somebody that swims at a certain time and doesn’t get beaten by 38 seconds by somebody that wasn’t even a good swimmer as a man.” Read into that what you will. 

Boris Johnson didn’t wait to be asked, telling MPs during a session of Prime Minister’s Questions in 2022: “When it comes to distinguishing between and man and a woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important.” 

Now Swinney’s position is clear on the matter, he’ll probably be hoping he doesn’t get asked the question again. The politics of gender was a topic his predecessors Humza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon took up with gusto.  

Ms Sturgeon steered the controversial GRR Bill through the Scottish Parliament, and spent much political capital doing so, winning some friends and making a lot of enemies along the way.  

JK Rowling even went as far as wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a slogan calling Ms Sturgeon a “destroyer of women's rights”, not a look the people-friendly politician would have welcomed.

The Herald:
When the Bill was blocked by the UK Government through a Section 35 Order, Humza Yousaf launched a legal challenge seeking judicial review, only to lose the case at the Court of Session.  

This is probably a quagmire Mr Swinney doesn’t want to wander back into. He's said he accepts that there’s no chance of reviving the court case, and will seek to change the UK Government’s mind over its block on the bill.

There's little chance of that happening, so it’s unlikely the First Minister will have to refight the battles of the past. But there is another looming, on the passage of a law banning conversion therapy, which Mr Swinney has said he intends to pass.  

This is a cause dear to the hearts of the Scottish Greens, which they’ve brought up several times since leaving government.  

Get Scotland's top politics newsletter straight to your inbox.

It’s likely this law has become totemic, the yardstick by which they will measure the ‘progressiveness’ of the new Scottish Government – Kate Forbes and all – and how far they can support the minority administration.  

Tellingly, the Greens were sanguine about Mr Swinney’s definition of a woman, refusing to voice any criticism.  

He still needs their support on other areas. Perhaps he gave the right answer after all.