Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland, and a dominant force in the Scottish independence movement—not to mention one of the most powerful women in Britain—announced Wednesday that she will be resigning after more than eight years in the post. She will remain in office until her successor is chosen.
“Since my very first moments in the job, I have believed that part of serving well is to know, almost instinctively, when the time is right to make way for someone else,” Sturgeon said at a press conference at Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence, in Edinburgh. “In my head and in my heart, I know that time is now. That it is right for me, for my party, and for the country.”
The shock announcement comes three weeks after Sturgeon told the BBC there was “plenty left in the tank” after New Zealand’s then-leader Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation, citing burnout. “If I ever reach the point that she has clearly reached, where I think overall I just can’t give the job everything it deserves,” Sturgeon said at the time, “then I hope I have the same courage she’s had in saying, ‘OK, this is the point to go’.”
Sturgeon, who has been a member of the Scottish Parliament for more than two decades, took over from Alex Salmond as the first female leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and First Minister in 2014, following the failed independence referendum. Since then, Sturgeon has shepherded her pro-independence party through a number of major election victories and saw the SNP’s popularity rise.
The decision comes at an uncertain time for the SNP and the future of the Scottish independence movement. A second push for independence began following Brexit, as Scotland voted heavily in favor of remaining within the European Union. SNP leaders including Sturgeon had argued that the Brexit vote meant that a second referendum was needed given Scotland’s divergent views on Europe.
But the U.K. Supreme Court ruled in November that the Scottish Parliament cannot hold a second independence referendum without Westminster’s approval. Sturgeon has said that the next general election in the U.K., scheduled for late 2024 or early 2025, would serve as a “de facto referendum” on independence, though not all of her colleagues agree with that direction. The party’s election strategy is due to be debated at a SNP conference next month that will decide how the party moves on the issue.
In her announcement, Sturgeon said that by resigning now, she would free up the party “to choose the path it believes to be the right one without worrying about the perceived implications for my leadership and in the knowledge that a new leader will steer us, I believe successfully, on that path.”
Who will replace Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s First Minister?
Who that new leader will ultimately be remains unclear. Unlike the last time the post of First Minister changed hands, from Salmond to Sturgeon, there is no obvious successor waiting in the wings. Sturgeon declined to endorse anyone for the job, noting that “the SNP is awash with talented individuals.”
Among those who have been tipped as potential candidates include John Swinney, a former SNP leader from 2000 to 2004 and current Deputy First Minister; Angus Robertson, the SNP’s constitutional secretary and former Westminster leader; Kate Forbes, the party’s finance minister; and Humza Yousaf, the party’s health secretary.
While Sturgeon will be exiting Bute House, she confirmed that she will not be leaving politics. “I intend to stay in Parliament until certainly the next election,” Sturgeon said, at which point she will decide whether to stand as a member of the Scottish government once again.
How are people reacting to Sturgeon’s resignation?
Sturgeon’s allies have paid tribute to her leadership over the last eight years. “Her public service, personal resilience, and commitment to Scotland is unmatched, and she has served our party unlike anyone else,” SNP lawmaker Stewart McDonald said of Sturgeon in a tweet on Wednesday, adding that her resignation constitutes an “enormous loss.” Alyn Smith, another SNP lawmaker, credited Sturgeon with bringing Scotland “closer to independence in Europe.”
Alistair Jack, the British government’s Secretary of State for Scotland, called Sturgeon a “formidable politician,” adding that “her resignation presents a welcome opportunity for the Scottish Government to change course and to drop its divisive obsession with independence.”
Did the Scottish Transgender Bill play a role?
The change in SNP leadership comes amid an ongoing dispute with London over a new Scottish government policy intended to make it easier for people to legally change their gender. The U.K. government, in a first, vetoed the legislation under Section 35 of the Scotland Act, in what Sturgeon dubbed a “full-frontal attack” on Scottish democracy.
In her statement on Wednesday, Sturgeon rejected the notion that the issue fueled her decision, which she said was “not a reaction to short-term pressures,” but rather the result of “a deeper and long-term assessment.”
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