Sturgeon's resignation: A look back on her unprecedented time in office
By TOM LOWE
On Wednesday 15th February, Nicola Sturgeon shocked Scottish politics by announcing her resignation as First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party. Having held the position since 2014, Sturgeon claimed that the job ‘takes its toll on you’, believing that her successor would be the right person to achieve Scottish independence.
Following the failure of the 2014 independence referendum and the resignation of her predecessor, Alex Salmond, Sturgeon emerged as the only candidate in the SNP leadership election, being sworn in as First Minister on 20th November 2014.
Despite the bleak prospect of leading a nationalist party in the wake of the referendum defeat, Sturgeon quickly proved herself to be a competent and open minded leader. At the 2015 General Election, opinion polls suggested that Sturgeon had performed exceedingly well in the televised leadership debates, and the SNP won an unprecedented 56 out of 59 Scottish seats.
The 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections saw the SNP retain their position as the dominant party in Scotland, winning more than double the seats of any other party. The now-infamous EU referendum was held just a few weeks later, with the UK voting 52% in favour of leaving. As Scotland voted 62% in favour of remaining, Sturgeon portrayed the referendum as embodying the ambivalence and ignorance of Westminster towards Scottish interests.
Brexit would ultimately be the bedrock upon which Sturgeon began to build up a renewed case for independence. Although hopes for an independent Scotland may have been dashed at the 2017 General Election (which saw the SNP lose 21 seats, mostly to the benefit of unionist parties), Sturgeon herself persevered with the message that Scotland would not be dragged out of the European Union against its will.
As the Conservative government found itself consistently hampered by challenges to Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Sturgeon decelerated the case for independence and focused on devolved Scottish issues – providing investment in renewable energy, community-led regeneration, and education.
The 2019 General Election once again saw an SNP landslide in Scotland, with the party winning 48 seats. That provided Sturgeon with a renewed mandate for independence; she argued that Boris Johnson had ‘no right’ to stand in the way of a second independence referendum. However, unforeseen circumstances would soon mean that independence became a lesser priority for Sturgeon and her government.
The first Scottish case of coronavirus was confirmed on 1st March 2020, with school closures being announced on the 20thMarch 2020, followed quickly by a UK-wide stay at home order on the 23rd. Reflecting on her handling of the pandemic, she said there were certainly ‘lots of lessons to learn’, arguing that more could have been done to save lives.
Falling just short of a majority at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election allowed Sturgeon to lead yet more calls for a second independence referendum, officially announcing the plans for one in June 2022. Whilst the Supreme Court ruled that Holyrood does not have the power to call a referendum without Westminster’s consent, Sturgeon continued her fight for an independent Scotland until the day of her resignation.
Sturgeon has been a dominant force in UK politics for over eight years. She became the de facto face of Scottish Nationalism, and it is likely that the movement will be severely affected by her resignation. It is likely that factionalism will weaken the SNP following her departure, and it is unlikely that any successor could fill the role to the extent that she has.
Ultimately, Sturgeon’s tenure has been characterised by determination and perseverance against all odds. She came to power in the face of adversity towards independence, led the SNP through five separate elections and a global pandemic, all of which failed to dilute her desire for an independent Scotland.
Her resignation is a significant blow to politics - not just in Scotland, but the UK as a whole. A consistent champion of the underprivileged and marginalised, Sturgeon’s principled nature and quick-witted public image provides a refreshing change to the career politics and sleaze of Westminster.