Nicola Sturgeon’s departure leaves many questions in her wake

When Nicola Sturgeon began campaigning for the Scottish National party as a teenager passionately opposed to Margaret Thatcher, support for an independent Scotland was a minority cause.

At the time, in 1987, Scotland was still the Labour party’s fiefdom and it returned 50 MPs to Westminster to the SNP’s three.

Even staunch opponents concede that Sturgeon, whose resignation after eight years as Scotland’s first minister has sent shockwaves through the UK, has played no small part in the reversal of the fortunes of the nationalist cause. Her departure in the face of looming challenges presages yet more upheaval for the UK’s politics.

“She’s been a giant in terms of where we have been as a party and where we are now — she has taken Scotland to an international stage,” said Alison Thewliss, MP for Glasgow central and home affairs spokesperson for the SNP.

Sturgeon leaves office next month after a period in which the SNP has grown into a hegemonic force in Scotland, weighing heavily on the 316-year-old union with England. By wiping out Labour electorally in its historic Scottish strongholds, the SNP has also played an outsized, if inadvertent, role in Tory dominance over Westminster for a decade.

For nationalists the prospect of independence has meanwhile drawn tantalisingly close, if also stubbornly out of reach.

“If you think of where we started off, and where we are now with support for independence consistently around 50 per cent in the polls, it’s a remarkable change that she has helped to build,” said Thewliss.

This is why, with approval ratings in opinion polls at 43 per cent — much higher than any of her UK or Scottish counterparts — the timing of Sturgeon’s resignation has come as such a surprise to much of the public.

“I am in complete shock,” said Jen Paton, a lawyer rushing to her train at Edinburgh’s Waverley station on Thursday. Not a supporter of Scottish independence, Paton had nevertheless backed the SNP under Sturgeon’s watch, drawn like many voters to its centre left agenda — in part because of the star quality of its leader.

“She is a really impressive politician,” Paton said, noting how unflappable, and “empathetic” she has been in public.

In the speech announcing her departure on Wednesday, Sturgeon suggested in comments that echoed Jacinda Ardern’s resignation in New Zealand last month that she was no longer able to give the job her all.

“There is a much greater intensity, dare I say brutality, to life as a politician than in years gone by,” she said.

However, by comparison with much of the past decade, when a procession of ill-fated Tory prime ministers, the travails of Labour and Brexit — which Scots voted against by 62 per cent — all played in Sturgeon’s favour, recent months have been choppy.

The weeks ahead were looking choppier still.

Critics in the movement have accused her of setting the independence cause back through a series of strategic miscalculations, including over legislation to make it easier for people to change their gender.

But more notably, they blame her insistence on a second independence referendum in the face of firm refusal by Westminster.

The Scots secured 45 per cent of the vote in the first referendum in 2014 — enough to cause existential angst about the UK’s future but not enough to split the country.

Her case for allowing Scotland to decide unilaterally on the timing of a follow-up referendum — that Britain’s departure from the EU has taken place against the Scottish will — was decisively squashed by the Supreme Court last year.

Short of the sustained level of support for independence the SNP needs to force the issue — around 10 points more than it has now — this has left the nationalists with no obvious way to achieve their dream.

“The truth, and it is a painful truth for the SNP to hear, is that she has failed,” said James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh university and author of several books on the SNP.

While recognising the fluency she has brought to the role, and the campaigning skills that have seen her lead the SNP to repeated electoral successes, Sturgeon’s detractors also note that under her watch the party’s record in government has been wanting.

Scotland, like England, is in a mess. Public sector workers are striking. The health service, over which the devolved government has control, is in crisis. Drug deaths are at shocking levels. And the government is far from achieving other cherished goals, such as closing the education attainment gap.

Sturgeon is “brilliant as a campaigner. But that meant she didn’t need to worry so much about the other stuff,” Mitchell said. Joanna Cherry, an MP and staunch critic from inside the SNP, put it another way: “Winning elections is all well and good. It’s what you do with victory.”

Some of this discontent looked set to come to a head at an SNP conference that had been planned for next month but was postponed in the wake of Sturgeon’s announcement. Sturgeon’s risky and contentious plan to run the next general election as a de facto referendum on independence was set to be debated at the gathering.

But the first minister was navigating a minefield of other potential challenges.

Investigations into SNP finances by both the police and electoral commission have circled uncomfortably close to Sturgeon.

The police probe is into £600,000 of funds raised from the SNP’s membership that was supposed to be ringfenced for a second referendum but appear to have been spent elsewhere.

“That shows a disdain for the membership. If I was running a bowling club and I said I was doing a collection for Mrs McDumpty’s gravestone and spent it on something else, would that be right?” said an SNP detractor.

Separately, the electoral commission has noted compliance issues with a £107,000 loan to the SNP by Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the party, made just after police investigation had begun.

Elsewhere there is the threat posed by a number of emails recently hacked from the account of Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s shadow defence secretary, which are the subject of fierce speculation within the party.

Whether or not these factors weighed on Sturgeon’s decision to go, they will be bones of contention as power ebbs away from the SNP’s flag-bearer and her successor is chosen by the membership in coming weeks.

For the Labour party, that is good news.

“I have always said that the path to victory for Labour passes through Scotland,” said Jackie Baillie, the party’s deputy leader in Scotland who sees opportunity in Sturgeon’s departure.

“If people want a progressive left of centre government, you can’t waste that opportunity next year. The only way to get rid of the Tories now is to vote Labour,” she said, not to “wait a lifetime for independence”.

Sturgeon’s allies are quick to dismiss recent troubles she has faced as reasons behind her departure.

“She has dealt with everything,” said Thewliss, underlining the role the first minister played during Covid-19, providing daily reassurance to Scots, in stark contrast to the chaotic performance of then prime minister Boris Johnson in London. “She doesn’t shirk from difficult tasks.”

Nor is anyone under the illusion that Labour can easily win back Scottish hearts. The SNP’s standard bearer may be on her way out but her independence cause is still very much alive.

“So far Labour has not demonstrated much of an ability to win back votes let alone reduce levels of support for independence,” says Professor John Curtice, one the UK’s foremost pollsters. “It’s a hell of a mountain to climb.”

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