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Nicola Sturgeon had run out of ideas on Scottish independence

Nicola Sturgeon ran out of road. It is as simple as that. Scotland’s first minister, a woman with a strong claim to being the most effective political leader in Britain, has decided the only way was down. The bigger and more important point is that what her departure signifies is an independence movement which also cannot see the next step forward.

Even before one gets to her recent mistakes, it had become clear that Sturgeon was out of ideas on how to advance the cause in the face of intransigence from Westminster. This, above everything else, was undermining her position. While she was being buffeted by normal political issues, it was when Scottish Nationalists looked to her for a plan on how to force a new referendum that they increasingly realised she had no answers. This most supreme of political communicators no longer had anything credible to say.

This, far more than her patent miscalculation on her gender recognition reform bill, is the key fact here. There is no reason to doubt her sincerity when she said that “in my head and in my heart I know that time is now”. But another way of putting this is that she has recognised that she is facing ever tougher battles and no longer has the fight left to overcome them.

As befits a truly effective leader, she knew when time was up. She was making mistakes she might not have made a few years ago. The temptation will be to view the GRR bill, which made it significantly easier for people to change their official gender, as the catalyst. But it was more symptom than cause. For perhaps the first time Sturgeon found herself badly out of step with her country, to the extent that when Westminster vetoed the measure, a majority of Scots sided with it.

There were other problems. For all her popularity, her SNP government has faced deepening and legitimate criticism over its record on education, the NHS and drug deaths. Other policy rows were also looming and Sturgeon has faced attacks over a loan made to the party by her husband, the SNP’s chief executive.

But above all this is the independence issue. Only Westminster can grant another referendum and it has refused to do so, arguing that only nine years have passed since the last and rejecting the argument that Brexit had created a material change of circumstances. Sturgeon, wisely, refused to support an illegal vote but, against Tory resolve, she was unable to force the issue. Even when a majority of seats at the Scottish elections were won by parties supporting independence, then UK prime minister Boris Johnson refused to give way.

Subsequent wheezes failed to launch. A new set of policy documents making the case did not generate much new enthusiasm. A legal challenge on the right to hold a vote was defeated. Her last plan, to declare the next Westminster elections a de facto referendum, was deeply flawed and widely opposed even within the SNP — a Labour revival would probably have seen a loss of seats.

Yet the SNP remains by far Scotland’s largest party, and while Sturgeon’s popularity was falling, it was still way above her rivals. Naturally focus now turns to the succession. There is no slam dunk replacement, though many are talking up Kate Forbes, the young finance minister. Forbes, a deeply religious figure, had the good fortune to be on maternity leave during the gender rights vote, not least because she was known to be unhappy with the bill.

But a more critical factor may well be who can offer a credible plan to restore momentum to the independence movement. And we know this is not easy because if it was, Sturgeon would have done it.

Yet the core problem was momentum. In the latest effort to stave off critics Sturgeon had called a conference next month on tactics. But the event looked likely to turn into a showcase for more radical, confrontational and implausible action.

The party with the most to gain now is Labour. Its Scottish leader is already targeting 12-15 gains in the Westminster elections — a significant advance. And the prospect of a Labour government in London will boost its vote in Scotland. This revival remains unionists’ best hope of stemming the separatist tide.

Unionists may be celebrating the departure of a formidable opponent but they may face a more confrontational leader. This could, of course, easily backfire. But an uncomfortable fact is that while about half of Scots want independence, and some polls already show a majority for it, democracy is not providing them with a vehicle to try to secure it.

That figure rises among younger voters. Independence remains the defining issue in Scottish politics and is likely to stay so whoever leads the SNP. But as long as half the country remains opposed, UK governments can keep stonewalling. While both sides are in stalemate, the lack of momentum undoubtedly aids the unionists. Yet separatism is not going away and it is likely that there will eventually be another referendum.

As for Sturgeon herself, within minutes of the news, pundits were trotting out the cliché that all political careers end in failure. This is an inadequate conclusion. The fact that her career did not end in total success does not mean it was a failure.

Sturgeon rebuilt the independence campaign after the 2014 defeat and created an image of a modern, confident, liberal Scotland capable of standing on its own. That she did not get all the way there does not mean she did not advance the journey.

History may show that her tenure was the high water mark of separatism, but those who want to preserve the union would be foolish to assume the fight is now won just because a talented general has left the field.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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