Nicola Sturgeon was out of ideas for Scottish independence

Nicola Sturgeon has run out of the road. It’s that simple. Scotland’s First Minister, a senior communicator with strong claims to being Britain’s most effective political leader, concluded the only way was down. The bigger and more important point is that her departure means an independence movement that also cannot see the next step forward.

Even before one gets to her recent blunders, it was clear that Sturgeon was running out of ideas on how to move forward in the face of Westminster’s intransigence. This is the crucial point, far more so than their miscalculations in their gender recognition reform bill. When Scottish nationalists searched for a plan to force a new referendum, they found they had no answers.

There’s no reason to doubt her sincerity as she said that “in my head and in my heart I know the time is now.” But to put it another way, she has realized that she is facing ever tougher struggles and no longer has the struggle to overcome them.

Sturgeon was good enough to know that she was making mistakes she might not have made a few years ago. One might be tempted to see the GRR law dispute as a catalyst that has made it much easier for people to change their official gender. But it was more a symptom than a cause. Behind the empathic nature, Sturgeon was a ruthless leader who crushed internal resistance. Such people do not show that they have lost their touch. This was perhaps the first time Sturgeon had gotten so far out of step with their country that a majority of Scots sided with him when Westminster vetoed the measure.

There were other issues designed to obscure independence efforts. Her SNP government has come under increasing criticism for its record on education, the NHS and drug-related deaths. There were also attacks over a loan that her husband, the SNP’s chief executive, had made to the party.

Above all, however, it was about the question of independence. Only Westminster can grant another referendum and has declined, arguing that it has only been nine years since the last one and dismissing the argument that Brexit has made a significant change in circumstances. Sturgeon, wisely unwilling to support an illegal election, failed to force the issue even when the majority of seats in Scotland’s elections were won by pro-independence parties.

Subsequent wheezes failed to start. A challenge to the right to vote was dismissed without the expected uproar. Their latest plan to declare the next Westminster elections a de facto referendum was deeply flawed and was rejected even within the SNP. Nor has it been able to expand the appeal of nationalism beyond its core support.

Even Brexit was a double-edged sword, reigniting separatism but raising new questions about the practicalities. In a last-ditch effort to ward off critics, Sturgeon called a conference on tactics next month. But the event likely seemed to be turning into an attack on their leadership and a showcase for more radical and untrustworthy measures.

The focus is now on the successor. Some will want a more confrontational leader, although that could backfire. And there are toxic departments to manage.

There is no surefire replacement, although many hype up young Treasury Secretary Kate Forbes. A deeply religious figure known for being unhappy with gender law, she was fortunate to be on maternity leave during the vote.

But the next leader needs to look like he has a credible plan to get the independence push back on track. And we know it’s not easy – if it were, Sturgeon would have done it.

The party with the most to gain now is Labour. Their Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, is already aiming for 12-15 wins in the Westminster elections – significant progress. And the prospect of a Labor government in London will boost their votes in Scotland. This revival is still the unionists’ best hope for stemming the Separatist tide.

Independence remains, and is likely to remain, the crucial issue in Scottish politics, regardless of who takes over the baton of the SNP. Separatist sentiment is not abating and support is higher among younger voters. The SNPs’ challenge is to build a campaign to raise support to a level that cannot be ignored. Another referendum, although it may take a decade, is still a likely possibility. But leaders matter and a deadlock favors unionists, as does a Labor resurgence.

Unionists may celebrate the end of a formidable enemy, but a situation where about half of Scots want independence but democracy denies them a means to secure it cannot be sustained indefinitely. They too must gain support for their cause.

As for Sturgeon herself, within minutes of the news, pundits determined that she had not secured independence, promoting the stereotype that all political careers end in failure. This is an inadequate conclusion. She rebuilt the Separatist campaign after the 2014 defeat and created an image of a modern, confident, liberal Scotland capable of standing on its own two feet. Just because she didn’t get all the way there doesn’t mean she didn’t push the journey forward.

She has big shoes to fill, and history may yet show that her tenure was the pinnacle of separatism. This is a good day for unionists. Nonetheless, those who wish to preserve the UK would be foolish to simply rest and assume that the battle is now won simply because a talented general has left the field. Nicola Sturgeon was out of ideas for Scottish independence

Adam Bradshaw

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