Why did Nicola Sturgeon quit if independence is coming?

Nicola Sturgeon made the surprise announcement on Wednesday. Credit: PA

It feels like Nicola Sturgeon has always been Scotland’s First Minister. 

She’s the longest serving in the role, and her predecessor Alex Salmond has quite literally been erased from SNP history - just try to find any mention of his name on the party’s website these days.

Sturgeon essentially inherited power from him at the end of 2014. There was no challenger after Salmond’s post-referendum resignation.

She grabbed power with both hands, held it close, and changed the shape of Scotland’s dominant party.

She must have taken selfies with half of Scotland and many will tell you they vote for Nicola Sturgeon rather than the SNP or independence.

Nicola Sturgeon has stood down. Credit: PA

For the last eight and a bit years it has been ‘the Sturgeon show.’

She would deny that.

But Nicola Sturgeon created a particularly small circle of people she could trust, most of them were unelected, and even her cabinet sat mostly on the sidelines when it came to running the country.

In contrast with the UK government, national televised briefings during the pandemic were rarely, if ever, left to any of her ministers; constitutional announcements have always had her and her alone at the podium, single handedly taking on Westminster; and even during the more recent pressures on the NHS, Scotland had weekly updates directly from Nicola Sturgeon front and centre on the stage at St Andrew’s house while her health minister stood staring at his shoes beside her, not daring to interrupt.

Of course, it worked, so why change it?

She achieved an astonishing win for her party in 2015 by securing all but three of the seats available to Scottish MPs at Westminster. 

And despite losing her Holyrood majority in 2016, the SNP has actually increased its vote. 

Domestic policy failure has provided scope for legitimate criticism.

Scotland has the worst drug death rate per capita in Europe, and it’s spiralled out of control on her watch.

Scotland’s NHS waiting times for A&E are at their worst level since records began.

And yet her position in power always appeared unshakable. She was, just weeks ago, the most popular politician in the UK.

Seen as one of the most astute politicians of her era, incredibly in tune with what voters liked to hear, there was no battle she feared to take on.

Then she championed the cause of improving Trans rights.

She did it believing in her heart it was the right thing to do, and her proposals for reform to the gender recognition act had been supported by other political parties before the toxicity of the debate spilled over from the online world to reality.

Whatever the right or wrong of it, whatever your own personal position, Nicola Sturgeon was warned the issue had the potential to become an utter quagmire for her politically.

Smart people in the SNP knew there was a unrest in the party over it - that this was an issue that could irritate some of the members who would rather she was 100% focused on independence.

Friends advised her that it could become messy and it was, perhaps, an issue she should handle with caution. Support the legislation, they said, but don’t get entrenched in the moral debate too deeply.

But Nicola Sturgeon charged in to battle intent on winning. She accused opponents of being homophobic, transphobic, and even racist. She used language like “culture wars” about the Westminster veto.

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Even at the time, many could see this language could be problematic down the line. It wasn’t particularly popular with the public and it wasn’t regarded by many in her party as a priority.

In whispers, people in the SNP questioned why she was getting herself boxed in over this when they are meant to be building support for independence.

Maybe it was overconfidence in her own abilities based on being virtually untouchable until now. Maybe because the extraordinarily small circle she keeps is becoming out of touch.

But what is it they say all politicians fear most? “Events, dear boy. Events.”

Two high profile scandals over trans women in prisons couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Nicola Sturgeon, for the first time in her career, looked to be floundering.

She became lost for words in interviews, she got herself tied in knots over the logic of her own argument, and she started losing support.

The once impervious first minister experienced something she isn’t used to: negative ratings in the polls. 

Worse than her own unpopularity, support for independence dropped off a cliff - plummeting from roughly 50% where it’s been stubbornly lingering for about a year, to just 37% immediately after the trans episode.

Nicola Sturgeon insisted in her resignation today that recent difficulties played no part in her decision; that she’s weathered worse storms and carried on.

She did endure the bruising Alex Salmond inquiry after steering Scotland through the pandemic, and, yes, she came out on top to win another election in May 2021.

But the scars were starting to show, like a lioness that’s just fought too many battles.

It had been rumoured for a while that Nicola Sturgeon was considering an exit strategy - something strenuously denied in every single interview she did as recently as a fortnight ago.

But the tiredness was starting to show in subtle ways: becoming a bit short when answering questions in media conferences; appearing irritated by scrutiny, which is something she had genuinely and admirably embraced until recently. 

When unrest started to grow in her party over her handling of the trans row, she could be forgiven for thinking now is a good time to call it a day.

It is true that some senior people in her party who have been sidelined by her dominance of everything started to grow irritated.

They’ve waited patiently because everything was rosy, but there was enough bitterness simmering just below a boil to indicate that the first sign of failure from their leader could lead to a rebellion.

Discipline within the SNP has been remarkable: they follow a “haud yer wheesht until independence” motto - essentially, don’t rock the boat until we get independence.

But there has been impatience at the lack of progress from Nicola Sturgeon on the independence front.

There’s a suspicion in the ranks that Sturgeon would happily keep telling voters independence is just around the corner to keep the SNP relevant and winning elections, without actually forcing the issue too hard. 

Even after the Supreme Court ruled she didn’t have the power to call a referendum without Westminster approval, her ‘de facto’ referendum plan was seen as weak and lacking urgency.

A sizeable number of independence supporters would privately say she has run her course. 

The trouble is there’s no obvious heir apparent.

So closely has Nicola Sturgeon guarded her Premiership, no one else in the SNP has had the space or the platform to build their own portfolio that gets them recognised by the public. 

In comparison, Alex Salmond let Nicola Sturgeon lead debates and public appearances when she was his deputy. 

He made her the minister for independence in the lead up to the 2014 referendum.

She was made for the job of filling his shoes.

The timing of her departure is also a blow to the argument the SNP would really like us to believe that independence is still just an election away.

Are we really to believe Nicola Sturgeon is walking away if independence is just a general election and "de facto" referendum away?

The signs of this resignation tell us she doesn’t genuinely believe it’s about to happen.

Her successor will have a tough job convincing the Scottish public independence is still on, and without that fundamental belief the SNP could really struggle in elections.

Nicola Sturgeon’s lasting legacy could well be the demise of the SNP and a hushing of the constitutional question for the foreseeable future. 

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