AS Scotland emerged from lockdown restrictions in the summer of 2021 Mandy Rhodes began to feel deeply uncomfortable at her work. As the long-time editor of Holyrood magazine, Ms Rhodes is one of Scotland’s most influential political journalists. Her workplace is the Scottish Parliament where she has been reporting and commenting on the business of government for nearly 20 years.

In recent years she’s become one of several prominent feminists who have found themselves targeted by transgender activists for espousing gender-critical views. Yet, nothing in her long career had prepared her for what she calls the malice beginning to filtrate Scotland’s corridors of power.

“After the pandemic my family had fears about me being in the office on my own. They were worried about some of the things being said on social media becoming physical threats. I don’t like going into Parliament any more. That’s my place of work, and I feel worried.”

Surely though, I suggest, Holyrood with its constant police presence and a stringent security detail on the front door must be one of the safest places in Scotland to work. We’re talking about elected politicians and civil servants sworn to uphold the highest levels of civic discourse and to make women feel protected.

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“Researchers, political staff and civil servants have become ridiculously empowered on social media to say things that I think go far beyond what they should be about,” she says. “Civil servants are expected to adhere to rules about what they can and cannot say on social media.”

She recalls a day in August 2021 when she says it became clear to her that the Scottish Parliament could no longer be considered a welcoming place for women like her who were refusing to remain silent over trans issues.

“I was applying the final touches to a magazine looking back at that term in Parliament and had asked each of the party leaders to reflect on what they felt had been achieved in the preceding months. We were sitting almost on deadline, waiting for Patrick Harvie’s piece to come in.

"Eventually, it came through very late at night. Basically, it was a diatribe about how Holyrood magazine was part of a transphobic campaign and how much I was personally part of it.

“No-one who knows me would ever describe me as shy and retiring. Yet I sat in my office crying. It felt like I was – and I don’t like the term ‘bullying’ as it’s used far too much – under siege at that point. I found it very disturbing that a political leader would send me something I’d requested for publication in the nation’s only political magazine and which is part of the architecture around that parliament and use it to call me a transphobe. So, for me going into Parliament now in the knowledge that there are people there who think I’m a bigot is truly astonishing.”

The Herald: A trans protestA trans protest (Image: Press Association)

Ms Rhodes’ career began at the Wester Hailes Sentinel, a community newspaper established to give a voice to a neighbourhood stalked by the evils of multi-deprivation. “Some of the conditions people encountered in their daily lives were unimaginably horrific,” she says.

After joining Scotland on Sunday a few years later she initiated and led national coverage of the emerging Orkney child abuse scandal. The families involved had contacted her because of the work she’d done on uncovering a series of child abuse and care scandals throughout the 1990s.

“I’m accustomed to working in difficult areas and breaking down taboos about marginalised people,” she says, “but nothing prepared me for the toxicity endemic in the sex and gender issue,” much of which she claims is rooted in misogyny.

In a recent column, she described how this issue had caused what had been a healthy professional relationship with Nicola Sturgeon to deteriorate to the point where it ceased to exist. The former First Minister had confided in Ms Rhodes that she’d suffered a miscarriage. “I carried that information for five years and regarded it as something sacred.

“In 2011 we had a catch-up over lunch and she described how the SNP was intent on bringing change to the traditional ways of doing politics. She also began to describe a mutual friend who had lost a baby, and I realised she was talking about herself. We talked about it, and I suggested it might be good for people to know this about her to counter some very false assumptions people had about her. Eventually, after five years, she agreed to do it.

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“I was contributing a chapter for a book on political leadership. I suggested to Nicola that she might like to say something about what not having children had meant for her as a political leader and to talk about her miscarriage. It took a lot of persuasion and a lot of bravery from her and I got very upset when people said it was media manipulation to elicit sympathy.”

Most of us in Scotland, by degrees, tend to be of the Left, and this includes journalists and Ms Rhodes sensed that people were moving towards the SNP.

“Back then they were offering a new politics, but recently they’ve begun exhibiting the same levels of arrogance and entitlement that brought down the Labour Party in Scotland. In 2005 and 2006 I was writing about Scottish Labour in much the same way as I’m writing about the SNP now.”

Like many others, she believes much of this is manifest in what she considers the party’s ruinous obsession with the gender issue. But it’s also become evident in the way it’s been used to deflect attention from acute policy failures in addressing social, health and educational inequality “My feminism is rooted in biology and sex. Women have always empathised with each other because we can talk about stuff such as periods and pregnancy.

“I’d spoken to about half the then cabinet, including Mike Russell and Bruce Crawford and told them that there was something potentially really huge coming down the pipe and that they needed to start exploring what this means.

“But all I got from them was ‘I’m not going there’. I think some of them were hoping that they’d be well away from this place before the consequences began to kick in. They all abdicated responsibility.

“In October 2019. I suggested to Nicola that the trans issue was becoming really toxic. Yet, all she could say was that young people were becoming really distressed. I don’t think her thinking on the matter got much deeper than that. It was about the last time she ever spoke to me.”

Mandy Rhodes had observed how easy it was for politicians to push uncomfortable truths to the margins when working in Wester Hailes. What became sickeningly evident to her and her colleagues in 1985 was the hypocrisy of politicians who saw that wretched community as a treasure chest because of the high levels of European funding it was receiving.

“Inequality in Scotland runs deep,” she says. “Nationalist supporters say that independence will bring us the opportunities to address them, but we’ve had SNP government for 16 years and nothing has changed in communities like Wester Hailes.”

This interview being conducted in the shadow of Holyrood, we begin to talk of luxury camper-vans; disappearing accountants and the SNP’s version of Big Tent politics. Is the SNP finished?

“The leadership contest showed that ministers were entirely out of step with the members and the party of government was out of step with the Scottish people,” she says. “Humza has to do something about that as well as restore the shattered reputation of the party itself.”

She’s angry that the new First Minister has chosen to pick a fight with Westminster over its veto of the GRR legislation, despite it being passed by a large majority of the Scottish Parliament, with MSPs from all parties backing it. 

“A far more pressing and relevant issue on which to fight Westminster is Holyrood’s fight to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic Scots law. This was blocked two years ago by Westminster on the basis that it over-reached our devolved powers."

Perhaps, I say, it might be good for this broken party, which has cut itself loose from the Scottish public, to begin self-medicating with a good dose of being in opposition.

Ms Rhodes agrees. “That leadership election might have been a good one for Kate Forbes to lose when you consider what’s engulfed the party in the last two weeks.”