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Analysis | Nicola Sturgeon was the Tories’ best foil. Now she’s gone.


Nicola Sturgeon announced on Wednesday that after eight years of leading the Scottish National Party she has had enough.

Her role in Scottish and British politics has been such that her departure could change the political landscape in Scotland and the UK in general. The beneficiary of her departure may be the union the Conservatives have been fighting to keep – but it probably won’t be the current Westminster government that has been Sturgeon’s scapegoat and bete noire.

Sturgeon cited both personal and professional reasons for her decision. Just as Ardern said to New Zealanders, “I am human; politicians are people,” Sturgeon similarly told Scots that “I am both a man and a politician.” Giving your all is the only way to get the job done, she said, “but in reality that can only be done, by anyone, for so long.” Her reasons were in some ways more nuanced, 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 prevailed. But there is no doubt that, as with Ardern, Sturgeon faced slumping 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, has not only proved controversial; it has succeeded in pushing many Scots to the British government’s side on an issue it had vigorously defended. Sturgeon seemed to enjoy battling 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 when she was a man, was housed in an all-female prison. prison before being moved.

A survey for the Sunday Times found that a majority were concerned about the safety of Scottish law, with 42% of respondents saying Sturgeon should resign. Other polls have shown that Sturgeon’s preference scores have dropped. Support for Scottish independence has fallen from 53% to 47% since December.

Sturgeon’s leadership is haunted by much more than the transgender issue. While she often scored points during the pandemic by staying ahead of Westminster, any comfort she could take from that has long since evaporated in frustration at the state of the National Health Service, which is run locally by the Scottish Government. Most of the problems – long waiting times, difficulties getting appointments – occur nationally, but Scotland has one of the lowest life expectancies in Western Europe and the highest rate of preventable cancer of any UK country. With voters viewing health care as one of their biggest concerns, even the SNP’s own supporters will increasingly question the party’s management.

Inequality, an opioid crisis, a seemingly endless series of SNP scandals and other issues have also taken their toll on the SNP’s popularity. She came to power and promised to close the gap between richer and poorer Scots in education, but had to admit that she had failed to do so. And while Scottish universities are generally excellent, they have increasingly focused on paying foreign students, leading many to complain about Scots (who attend for free) being squeezed out.

But what about independence? Sturgeon has been synonymous with the bid to allow Scotland to leave the UK since she rose to prominence eight years ago, taking over from Alex Salmond after the independence referendum, which the SNP lost by 45% to 55%. Her party membership soared during her leadership. At the 2015 general election, the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats. The following year, the SNP won a record number of seats in the election for Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament.

But the 2016 Brexit referendum (in which 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU) gave both a boost to the SNP cause and a problem it was never able to solve. How would the border with England work? How would Scotland keep the pound if the EU required applicants to commit to eventually adopting the euro? How would Scotland manage without the huge transfers from Westminster that Sturgeon conveniently ignored when he blamed London for various problems?

Sturgeon argued that Brexit brought about a “material change in circumstances” that should once again give Scots an independence vote – in what was later dubbed Indyref2. Her tactics have always been maximalist, but more and more she is running out of options. Her bid for a second referendum has been rejected by Britain’s Supreme Court, forcing the SNP to argue that the next election would be a de facto independence vote. That doesn’t mean the independence movement is over. The SNP will appoint a new leader and move on; it’s just not clear if that will be enough to keep an increasingly troublesome 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 is likely to mean bad news for Rishi Sunak’s ruling Conservative Party in the next election. The Scottish Conservatives have been on a livelihood since their own able leader Ruth Davidson stepped down over disagreements with Boris Johnson’s Brexit policies and to spend time with her child. The Labor Party, rather than the Conservatives, would likely benefit from any electoral weakening of the SNP, although the hope of getting 24 seats in the next election to help Keir Starmer in Downing Street is still a big ask for a party that does everything had only faded away after dominating Scottish politics from the mid-1960s to 2010.

It’s typical of Sturgeon to control the coverage and timing of an announcement like this; and her heartfelt personal decision will resonate with many who struggle with similar questions, much like Ardern’s. But Sturgeon made it clear that while she has stepped down from leadership, she will continue to be a legislator and advocate for the issues closest to her, including independence.

With so much to play for, Scotland expect a lot more attention at Westminster.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion on healthcare and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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