Sturgeon cited both personal and professional reasons for her decision. Just as Ardern told New Zealanders that “I am human; politicians are human,” Sturgeon similarly told Scots that “I am human as well as a politician.” Giving everything is the only way to do the job, she said, “but in truth, that can only be done, by anyone, for so long.” Her reasons were more nuanced in some ways, arguing that her presence had become too polarizing to serve the cause of Scottish independence from the UK.
She repeatedly denied that “short-term issues” had been the deciding factor. But there is no question that, as with Ardern, Sturgeon was facing sagging polls and growing doubts about her leadership and the direction of her party.
Her Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which made it much easier for Scots to get a gender recognition certificate, hasn’t just proved controversial; it’s succeeded in pushing many Scots over to the UK government’s side on an issue she had vigorously championed. Sturgeon seemed to relish the fight with the British government, which blocked the bill, but found herself struggling to defend her position after transgender prisoner Isla Bryson, who was convicted of raping two women while still a man, had been housed in an all-female prison before being moved.
A survey for the Sunday Times found that a majority had safety concerns with the Scottish bill, and 42% of respondents thought Sturgeon should step down. Other polls have found that Sturgeon’s favorability ratings have fallen. Support for Scottish independence has fallen to 47% from 53% since December.
Sturgeon’s leadership has been dogged by much more than the transgender issue. While she often scored points during the pandemic by moving ahead of Westminster, any comfort she could get from that has long since evaporated in frustration over the state of the National Health Service, which is run locally by Scotland’s government. Most of the problems — long wait times, difficulty in getting appointments — are prevalent nationally, but Scotland has one of the lowest life expectancies in western Europe and the highest proportion of preventable cancers of any UK nation. With voters rating health care as one of their top concerns, even the SNP’s own supporters are increasingly likely to doubt the party’s management.
Inequality, an opioid crisis, a seemingly endless string of SNP scandals and other problems have also taken their toll on the SNP’s popularity. She came to power promising to close the gap between wealthier and poorer Scots in education but has been forced to acknowledge that wasn’t achieved. And while Scottish universities are generally excellent, they have turned increasingly to fee-paying overseas students, leading many to complain about Scots (who can attend for free) being squeezed out.
But what about independence? Sturgeon has been synonymous with the bid for Scotland leaving the UK since she rose to prominence eight years ago, taking over from Alex Salmond following the referendum on independence, which the SNP lost 45% to 55%. Membership in her party soared during her leadership. In the 2015 general election, the SNP took 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland. The following year, the SNP won a record number of seats in the elections for Holyrood , Scotland’s Parliament.
But the 2016 Brexit referendum (where 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU) both turbocharged the SNP cause and posed a problem it has never been able to solve. How would the border with England work? How would Scotland keep the pound when the EU required applicants to commit to eventually adopt the euro? How would Scotland manage without the enormous transfers from Westminster that Sturgeon conveniently ignored when blaming London for various problems?
Sturgeon argued that Brexit posed a “material change in circumstances” that should give Scots another independence vote — in what became called Indyref2. Her tactics have always been maximalist, but increasingly she’s looked out of options. Her bid for a second referendum has been shot down by Britain’s Supreme Court, leaving the SNP to argue the next election would be a de facto vote on independence. That doesn’t mean the independence movement is finished. The SNP will appoint a new leader and move on; it’s just not clear if that will be enough to keep an increasingly fractious party united or find a way to build a majority for independence.
If her absence raises questions about the future direction of the SNP, it likely spells bad news for Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservative Party at the next election. The Scottish Conservatives have been on life support ever since their own capable leader Ruth Davidson resigned over disagreement with Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy and to spend time with her child. The Labour Party, rather than the Conservatives, would be the likely beneficiary of any electoral weakening of the SNP, though hopes of 24 seats at the next election to help put Keir Starmer in Downing Street is still a big ask for a party that was all but wiped out after dominating Scottish politics from the mid-1960s until 2010.
It’s typical of Sturgeon to control the messaging and timing of an announcement like this; and her deeply felt personal decision will resonate with many who struggle with similar questions, much as Ardern’s did. But Sturgeon made clear that while she’s stepped down from the leadership, she’ll remain a lawmaker and champion of the issues closest to her, including independence.
With so much to play for, expect Scotland to get a great deal more attention in Westminster.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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