Nicola Sturgeon’s departure leaves many unanswered questions

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

Back then, in 1987, Scotland was still a Labor Party fief and brought 50 MPs back to Westminster to the SNP three.

Even staunch opponents concede that Sturgeon, whose resignation after eight years as Scotland’s first minister sent shockwaves across the UK, has played no small part in reversing the fortunes of the nationalist cause. Her departure amid looming challenges heralds even more upheaval for British politics.

“She was a giant in terms of where we were as a party and where we are now – she put Scotland on an international stage,” said Alison Thewliss, MP for Glasgow Headquarters and SNP spokesperson for home affairs.

Sturgeon leaves office next month after a period in which the SNP has grown into a hegemonic force in Scotland and has weighed heavily on the 316-year-old union with England. By wiping out Labor in its historic Scottish strongholds in the election, the SNP also played a disproportionate if unintended role in Tory dominance over Westminster for a decade.

For nationalists, the prospect of independence is now tantalizingly close, if stubbornly out of reach.

“If you think about where we started and where we are now with consistent support for independence at around 50 percent in the polls, that’s a remarkable shift that she helped build,” Thewliss said.

Alison Thewliss
Glasgow MP Alison Thewliss, spokeswoman for central and home affairs for the SNP, said Nicola Sturgeon has put Scotland on an international stage © Ken Jack/Alamy

That is why the timing of Sturgeon’s resignation, with opinion poll approval ratings of 43 per cent – much higher than any of her British or Scottish counterparts – is so surprising to much of the public.

“I’m in complete shock,” said Jen Paton, a solicitor, who hurried to her train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh on Thursday. Although Paton was not a supporter of Scottish independence, he had nonetheless supported the SNP under Sturgeon’s oversight, which like many voters was drawn to its centre-left agenda – partly because of the star quality of its leader.

“She’s a really impressive politician,” Paton said, noting how unflappable and “empathetic” she was in public.

In the speech announcing her departure on Wednesday, Sturgeon suggested in comments that mirrored Jacinda Ardern’s retirement from New Zealand last month that she was no longer fit to give the job full-time.

“Life as a politician has a much greater intensity, dare I say brutality, than in previous years,” she said.

But compared to much of the last decade, when a procession of hapless Tory prime ministers, the troubles of Labor and Brexit – which Scots had voted 62 per cent against – all played in Sturgeon’s favour, the past few months have been choppy.

The coming weeks looked even more unsettled.

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

Nicola Sturgeon delivers her resignation speech
Nicola Sturgeon delivers her resignation speech on Wednesday © Jane Barlow/PA

Above all, they blame their insistence on a second independence referendum in the face of Westminster’s staunch rejection.

Scots secured 45 per cent of the vote in the first referendum in 2014 – enough to prompt existential fears about Britain’s future but not enough to divide the country.

Their argument to let Scotland unilaterally decide the timing of a follow-up referendum – that Britain’s exit from the EU took place against Scotland’s will – was decisively defeated by the Supreme Court last year.

Aside from the continued pro-independence support the SNP needs to push the issue — about 10 points up from now — this has left the nationalists with no obvious path to realizing their dream.

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

While Sturgeon’s critics acknowledge the dexterity she brought to the role and the campaign skills she used to lead the SNP to repeated electoral successes, they also note that under her oversight, the party’s governing record has failed.

Scotland, like England, is in a mess. Public sector workers are on strike. Healthcare, over which devolved government is in control, is in crisis. The number of drug-related deaths is alarmingly high. And the government is far from meeting other lofty goals like closing the education gap.

Sturgeon is “brilliant as an activist. But that meant she didn’t have to worry about the other things as much,” Mitchell said. Joanna Cherry, an MP and staunch critic within the SNP, put it differently: “Winning elections is all well and good. It’s what you do with victory.”

Johanna Cherry
SNP MP Joanna Cherry is a staunch critic of Nicola Sturgeon © Robert Perry/EPA/Shutterstock

Some of that dissatisfaction seemed poised to come to a head at an SNP conference that was scheduled for next month but was postponed after Sturgeon’s announcement. Sturgeon’s risky and controversial plan to hold the next general election as a de facto independence referendum was to be debated at the assembly.

But the First Minister was navigating a minefield of other potential challenges.

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

Police are investigating £600,000 of SNP membership funds that were supposed to be fenced off for a second referendum but appear to have been spent elsewhere.

“It shows a contempt for membership. If I run a bowling club and say I’m making a collection for Mrs. McDumpty’s tombstone and would spend it on something else, would that be correct?” said one SNP critic.

Separately, the Electoral Commission has identified compliance issues with a £107,000 loan to the SNP from Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, granted shortly after the police investigation began.

Elsewhere, the threat looms over a series of emails recently hacked from the account of Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s shadow secretary of defense, which has been the subject of intense speculation within the party.

Whether or not these factors weighed on Sturgeon’s decision to leave, they will be a bone of contention as the SNP’s flag-bearer’s power wanes and her replacement is elected by members in the coming weeks.

This is good news for the Labor Party.

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

Jackie Baillie
Jackie Baillie, Labor Deputy Leader in Scotland © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

“If people want a progressive left center government, they cannot miss this opportunity next year. The only way to get rid of the Tories now is to vote Labor,” she said, not “wait a lifetime for independence”.

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

“She took care of everything,” Thewliss said, underscoring the role played by the First Minister during Covid-19, providing daily reassurance to Scots in stark contrast to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chaotic performance in London. “She doesn’t shy away from difficult tasks.”

Nobody is under the illusion that Labor can easily win back Scottish hearts. The SNP standard-bearer may be on her way out, but her independence cause is still very much alive.

“So far Labor has not shown much of its ability to win back votes, let alone reduce support for independence,” says Professor John Curtice, one of Britain’s leading pollsters. “It’s one hell of a mountain to climb.” Nicola Sturgeon’s departure leaves many unanswered questions

Adam Bradshaw

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