Announcing her resignation as Scotland’s first minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National party, Nicola Sturgeon insisted she would step down with her nation in the “final phase” of the journey to end its three-century-old union with England.
“I firmly believe that my successor, whoever he or she may be, will lead Scotland to independence,” Sturgeon told journalists invited to her elegant 18th century Edinburgh official residence on Wednesday for an announcement that sent shockwaves through UK politics.
Sturgeon, Scotland’s most popular leading politician by far, pointed to the SNP’s continuing domination of the nation’s politics as a reason for her confidence.
But analysts said her push for independence was effectively stalled by the UK government’s steadfast refusal to permit a rerun of the 2014 referendum in which Scots backed staying in the union by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
Mark Diffley, an expert on Scottish political polling, said there was no short-term prospect of another plebiscite and Sturgeon’s “plan B” strategy of treating the next UK general election as a de facto independence vote was unpopular both with Scots and large swaths of the SNP itself.
“It’s difficult to see where the independence movement goes in the immediate future,” he added.
Sturgeon suggested it would have been wrong for her to push an SNP special conference scheduled for next month to adopt her plan B, given she would not be around to see it through.
That stance will leave her successor to find a way to balance the party’s commitment to legal and consensual constitutional change with the hunger of its more fundamentalist members for urgent action.
Sturgeon’s replacement will also have to deal with the fraying unity of an SNP that has made formidable internal discipline central to its success as Scotland’s governing party since 2007.
As well as strains over independence strategy, leading members of the SNP are divided over her government’s attempts to make it easier to obtain official recognition for changes of gender.
Some in the party saw Sturgeon’s determination to push through the gender legislation despite indications of public concern as a sign she was losing her political touch, a view strengthened by news last month that a double rapist had been placed in a Scottish female-only prison.
She had also been the target of growing criticism of the SNP’s record during her time as deputy first minister from 2007 to 2014 and first minister since. Escalating public sector strikes, the winter woes of the NHS and business doubts about flagship plans for a recycling scheme have all undermined the SNP’s claim to competence in governing.
Sturgeon has also faced intensifying scrutiny over the handling of SNP affairs, following revelations that her husband, the party’s long-serving chief executive Peter Murrell, made a £107,620 loan to it that was not declared to the Electoral Commission until more than a year later — a breach of election finance rules.
Separately, the Herald newspaper reported this week that police had begun taking substantive statements from witnesses in an investigation into SNP finances that followed claims the party spent hundreds of thousands of pounds donated for a future independence referendum on other things.
The SNP has said it will co-operate fully with any investigation. Asked after her Bute House press conference on Wednesday whether she had been interviewed or expected to be, Sturgeon said she was “not going to discuss an ongoing police investigation”.
The first minister had already insisted that recent difficulties had not been the cause of her decision to resign, attributing it more generally to the strains of office and a considered judgment that leaving would be good for her, her party and her nation.
It has certainly been a gruelling few years for the woman who went from a shy but politically-committed working-class teenager in south-western Ayrshire to Scotland’s highest office.
Sturgeon was widely seen as handling the coronavirus pandemic better than the then UK prime minister Boris Johnson, but said the experience had been “the toughest thing I’ve done”.
Perhaps even more painful was a bitter rift with her predecessor and mentor, Alex Salmond, that followed complaints of sexual harassment against the former SNP leader and first minister by two civil servants in 2018. At a criminal trial in 2020, Salmond was acquitted of all 13 sexual offence charges against him. He later accused his former protégé of presiding over “failures” of national leadership, and formed the breakaway Alba party.
While Sturgeon’s personal ratings had declined recently, the exit of a figure even opponents recognise as one of the most formidable politicians of her generation is widely seen as an opportunity for pro-union parties.
Scottish Labour, which dominated the country for decades but has been largely sidelined by the SNP over the past 15 years, is particularly hopeful of a revival.
Jim Murphy, a former Labour UK cabinet minister and one-time leader of the Scottish party, said Sturgeon had been the “glue” that held the “nationalist coalition” together in recent years.
Murphy predicted her departure would help Labour seize power at the next UK general election by allowing it to take votes in Scotland from the SNP. “With one giant leap, that becomes a far easier prospect,” he added.
With the SNP and the independence cause temporarily “leaderless”, Labour could have a chance to catch voters’ attention, said Diffley. “With a political vacuum, there is space for others to try to take advantage and to reset,” he added.
However, Michael Keating, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen and a specialist on constitutional issues, said UK parties were still struggling to set out a vision for the union that would increase support for it.
Demographics appear to favour Scottish independence, with support for leaving the UK strong among younger Scots, a stance that is so far being sustained as they age, he added.
Sturgeon’s departure could actually be more of an opportunity for the SNP and independence movement to “take stock and seek a new approach”, said Keating.
The party could now drop the idea of a de facto referendum at the next UK general election and start setting out a proper prospectus for independence that would address the thorny questions of whether to create a new currency and how to deal with a new border with England, he added.
“If they are serious about independence, that homework needs to be done,” said Keating.
Much will depend on the calibre of the SNP politician who succeeds Sturgeon. Many in the party say she has failed to cultivate strong candidates.
In 2020 Derek Mackay, the then Scottish finance secretary and a favourite at that time to succeed Sturgeon, resigned after he was found to have sent hundreds of social media messages to a 16-year-old.
A poll of Scottish voters this month by Panelbase for The Times found that current finance secretary Kate Forbes was the most popular choice to be the next first minister. But only 7 per cent of people backed her while 69 per cent of respondents said they did not know who they would support.
On Wednesday, Sturgeon acknowledged that in a party with “dominant individuals”, others could be eclipsed — but insisted this would not be a lasting problem. “The SNP is awash with talented individuals,” she said.