Nicola Sturgeon | Shock departure

The First Minister of Scotland, who has been the face of the independence campaign for a decade, is quitting after a slew of setbacks from scandals to controversial legislation 

February 19, 2023 01:52 am | Updated 02:23 pm IST

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of the semi-autonomous government of Scotland and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), has announced her resignation from both posts. Her decision brings the curtains down on an eight-year-long tenure that began in 2014, when she succeeded her mentor Alex Salmond as First Minister.

Ms. Sturgeon, the daughter of an electrician and a dental nurse, grew up in a working class neighbourhood in the coastal town of Irvine that had long been a stronghold of the Scottish Labour Party (SLP). But things began to change after Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal ‘reforms’ in the early 1980s. As Scotland’s Labour MPs watched helplessly, Thatcher’s supply-side economics upended the lives of the country’s industrial workforce — gutting trade unions, and triggering mine closures and factory lay-offs.

Seeing the havoc wreaked by Thatcherite policies — introduced from outside Scotland and over which her country’s leaders had no say — in her own community, Ms. Sturgeon, now 52, joined the SNP at the age of 16. At the time, the SLP was dominant and the SNP lacked direction. In 1990, Mr. Salmond, an economist, successfully ran for the SNP party leadership. He pushed the party to the left of Labour on the economy, and to the right of it on nationalism, aggressively seeking to decouple Scotland politically from the U.K.

Mr. Salmond met Ms. Sturgeon when she was a member of the party’s youth wing and the two hit it off. With Salmond taking her under his wing, her political fortunes rose along with her mentor’s. When the U.K. granted Scotland its own Parliament, Ms. Sturgeon, in 1999, became part of the first batch of Scottish Parliamentarians. When the SNP formed a minority government in 2007 and Mr. Salmond became First Minister, he made her Deputy First Minister, a post she would hold till 2014.

Independence vote

In September 2014, a referendum was held on Scotland’s independence from the U.K. While 45% voted ‘yes’, 55% voted against. Mr. Salmond, who had led the SNP’s campaign for a ‘yes’ vote, resigned following the defeat. Ms. Sturgeon stepped up to take his place. In November 2014, she became both the leader of the SNP and First Minister. Subsequently, she led the SNP to consecutive victories both in the U.K. general elections and in the polls to the Scottish legislature in 2016 and 2021, building a reputation as Britain’s most formidable politician.

Ms. Sturgeon’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic was widely commended, drawing comparisons with another female head of government across the globe, New Zealand’s then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Her early years as First Minister saw some progressive moves — she set up an alternative social security system in Scotland when the U.K. was busy slashing welfare budgets, and in contrast to Downing Street, she welcomed immigrants and asylum-seekers. But her core political programme has always been Scottish independence.

When the U.K. voted for Brexit, Ms. Sturgeon began to press for a second referendum, pointing out that Scotland had voted decisively (62%) to remain in the EU and did not deserve to be forced out against its will. But successive U.K. Prime Ministers refused to approve a second referendum. Last November, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that Scotland did not have the powers to hold a referendum for independence without Westminster approval — a major political setback. It was by no means the only one. Her closest political associate, Mr. Salmond, – of whom she had said, “I would not have been able to do what I have in politics without his constant advice, guidance and support through all these years” -- was accused of sexual harassment by two former staffers. While he was acquitted of all charges, she got caught in the trial’s blowback. Her government was charged with mishandling the investigation, and Mr. Salmond sued it successfully for £500,000. Ms. Sturgeon herself faced accusations of misleading the Parliament — a charge on which she was eventually exonerated.

Perhaps the proverbial last straw came when her Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which aimed to make it easy for transgender persons to change the sex on their birth certificate, was blocked by the U.K. government. The Bill sharpened divisions within her own party when a convicted double rapist, a transwoman, was sent to a women’s prison. As Ms. Sturgeon struggled to articulate how she would protect women-only spaces such as a women’s prison from predatory men who may falsely claim a trans-gender identity, there was a storm of outrage from women’s rights activists, with the likes of J.K. Rowling tweeting a picture wearing a T-shirt that said, “Nicola Sturgeon, destroyer of women’s rights,”.

It seems likely that the unrelenting stress of political life, especially post-COVID, began to wear her down. Ms. Sturgeon seemed to admit as much when she said in her resignation speech, “The nature and form of modern political discourse means there is a much greater intensity — dare I say it, brutality — to life as a politician than in years gone by. All in all, it takes its toll on you and on those around you.”

With no clear successor in sight, her exit may unleash a power struggle within the SNP. The party looks at an uncertain future, without the leader who had become its face, and without a strategy on its core plank of Scottish independence. But Ms. Sturgeon is only 52, and her retreat may not be permanent.

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