Pulling into a service station to listen to Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation speech on Wednesday morning, I was hit by a wave of sadness. It wasn’t that the first minister’s departure was unexpected. Though the precise timing was a shock, she has been visibly flagging for months, and her popularity has been waning even among SNP diehards. “She’s lost the room,” one loyalist told me recently. When Jacinda Ardern – a politician Sturgeon greatly admires – stepped down as the prime minister of New Zealand with the words: “We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time,” I imagined Sturgeon thinking: “That’s the way to do it.”
Nor am I blind to the chequered nature of the first minister’s legacy. It has been disappointing to watch a woman who came to power with such noble aspirations fail to deliver on a succession of pledges, such as closing the educational attainment gap, and become mired in a succession of controversies, such as the ferry fiasco and the “missing” £600,000 of SNP funds.
Yet her speech – and the poise with which she delivered it – brought back all that was good about her leadership: the almost Calvinist sense of duty, the relatability, the humility. These are qualities absent in the five UK prime ministers who have been in office as she attempted to steer her ship through the choppy waters that their greed and populism created. Sturgeon has her own character flaws. Her cautious nature has had a dampening effect on her radicalism, and her reluctance to listen to anyone outside her inner circle led to errors of judgment on the “named person” legislation, which was later found to breach children’s right to privacy, and on the gender recognition reform bill, which Rishi Sunak blocked in a historic challenge to Scottish devolution.
Still, if Boris Johnson, Liz Truss or Sunak had possessed a fraction of Sturgeon’s integrity, there would have been no Brexit, no support for bankers’ bonuses and no hint of tax avoidance. And if they had acknowledged the SNP’s overwhelming mandate for a second independence referendum, she would not now be facing criticism for failing to secure one. Furthermore, while Sturgeon’s policies may not have been ambitious enough for those on the left of the SNP, Scotland’s tax system is the most progressive in the UK, and the Conservatives’ welfare reforms are being mitigated by the child payment – £25 per child per week for low-income families.
Sturgeon made enemies on both sides of the constitutional divide. Sometimes it felt like she couldn’t win. But the sight of her, eloquent and self-reflective at the podium brought back her finest hour: guiding Scotland through the pandemic. There were mistakes there, too, of course, most notably the release of untested hospital patients into care homes. But her messaging was always clear and direct, and you never doubted she cared or that she was giving her all.
You could no more imagine Sturgeon socialising while other people mourned alone than you could imagine Johnson stacking chairs at the end of a political meeting (something Sturgeon was wont to do even as first minister). Or resigning gracefully in the interests of his party and his country. Her speech was also a reminder of how she transformed the landscape. When I returned to Scotland from England in 1996, politics and journalism was male-dominated, with female voices pushed to the margins. Sturgeon changed all that, not merely by being a woman at the helm (after all, there have been two female prime ministers during her time in power), but by actively promoting gender equality.
Her government’s handling of the initial allegations against Alex Salmond, and the inquiry that followed, almost proved her undoing. But the impulse to change the sexual harassment complaints process came from a place of principle; and she stuck to those principles despite the outpouring of vitriol and misogyny they unleashed. Though Sturgeon insists the fallout from the GRR bill was not the catalyst for her departure, the accusation that she has squandered her right to be considered a feminist must be painful. The timing of her resignation appears to have more to do with the forthcoming conference on “election-based options” designed to force the UK government into negotiations on independence. Sturgeon knows her preferred option – turning the general election into a de facto referendum – is divisive. “And I cannot in good conscience ask the party to choose an option based on my judgment, whilst not being convinced that I would be there as leader to see it through,” she explained. “Conscience”: there’s a concept that’s been in short supply these last 10 years.
I admire Sturgeon for not clinging too desperately to her dream of personally delivering independence. It must be tough to give up something that has consumed so much of your life – although it may be easier to cede power if you have not desired it for its own sake, but as a means of securing an ideal that transcends your own ego. I admire her, too, for not believing she is indispensable; for having faith in the next generation of SNP politicians. My service station sadness was part ruefulness for what might have been, part fear there was no one else capable of filling her shoes. It’s impossible to conceive of any of the touted contenders – Kate Forbes, Keith Brown, Neil Gray – filling stadiums full of selfie-seeking fans. But while Sturgeon’s competence was established before she became first minister, her popularity was a product of timing; she rode into town on a post-referendum high. Whoever succeeds her will have to make their own luck, to rethink the party’s entire strategy and approach. That may be no bad thing.