The resignation of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today took many by surprise. Her leadership of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scotland since 2014 has seen support for her party, and the cause of independence, increase significantly. Whilst recent controversies have dented her support, were an election held tomorrow the SNP would be re-elected to Holyrood and would win the most Scottish Seats in a Westminster election.
Much like the recent resignation of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Sturgeon’s resignation comes after many years of hate and vitriol from political opponents. This was alluded to in her resignation announcement:
The First Minister is never off duty, particularly in this day and age. There is virtually no privacy. Even ordinary stuff that most people take for granted, like going for a coffee with friends or for a walk on your own becomes very difficult. And the nature and form of modern political discourse means that there is a much greater intensity – dare I say it? – brutality to life as a politician than in years gone by. All in all, and actually for a long time without being apparent, it takes its toll on you and on those around you. And if that is true in the best of times, it has been more so in recent years. Leading this country through the Covid pandemic is by far the toughest thing I’ve done. It may well be the toughest thing I ever do. I certainly hope so. Now by no stretch of the imagination was my job the hardest in the country during that time. But the weight of responsibility was immense, and it’s only very recently, I think, that I’ve started to comprehend, let alone process, the physical and mental impact of it on me.https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-scotland-64650792
In recent weeks, Sturgeon suffered political setbacks, which may have led to this decision today.
The first of these was the Supreme Court ruling in late November 2022 that a second referendum on Scottish Independence cannot be held, unless Westminster agrees to it. Controversially, Sturgeon’s response to this decision was that the next general election should be treated as a defacto referendum, something that SNP supporters are quite split on.
The second was the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. This Bill reduced the legal age someone could apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. It also removed the need for a medical diagnosis and evidence of having lived for two years in their acquired gender. The response of the Conservative Government in Westminster was to make an order under the Scotland Act 1998 preventing this Bill from proceeding to Royal Ascent.
This was shortly followed by the controversy of a Transgender woman in Scotland who had been convicted of double rape being assessed for a women’s prison. Whilst this was an isolated incident that was quickly addressed by the authorities, it was quickly used as a weapon to attack Sturgeon’s “woke agenda”.
The English press, and in particular the Tory Press, has run a concerted campaign of attacking Sturgeon and the SNP for years. Pro Conservative newspaper The Telegraph have predicted doom for the Scottish Independence movement many times. For example, former SNP leader Alex Salmond formed Alba and has even gone as far as to describe Scotland as a “failed state” under Sturgeon’s leadership.
Despite investigations of breaching the Ministerial Code, which Sturgeon was cleared of, many in the media talked up her imminent political demise prior to the 2021 Holyrood elections. Others claimed that if the SNP did not win an outright majority, it showed there was not really support for independence in Scotland. That the SNP and Scottish Greens, who also support independence, did gain a majority in the 2021 Scottish election is conveniently downplayed by much of the media, especially in England.
My previous post asked whether political leadership mattered. Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader has been a strong advocate for independence, and this will undoubtedly have contributed to increased support for this cause.
Like all leaders, she will be remembered most of all for how she responded to events. Sturgeon was an outspoken critic when the British Government struggled to get a Brexit deal through the Commons, regularly reminding the world that Scotland had voted to remain in the EU. During the coronvirus pandemic, Sturgeon was viewed by many as a strong and competent leader, in stark contrast to the incompetent actions of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Government. And in 2022, when the Truss/Kwarteng Mini Budget did enormous harm to the economy, Sturgeon was characteristically forthright in her condemnation.
While Sturgeon’s strong leadership and vision have helped build support for Scottish Independence, the Conservative and Unionist Party’s arrogance and self-serving incompetence in government have greatly aided her in this. Under the Tories, many Scots have become convinced they would be better off leaving the United Kingdom.
Polls show varying levels of support for independence. Overall, support for independence is higher than in the 2014 referendum. Further, the SNP continue to dominate Scottish politics, and a new leader is unlikely to change this. Those who believe Sturgeon’s departure spells the end for the independence movement will likely soon be disappointed.