Sturgeon departs. What now?

When news broke yesterday morning that Nicola Sturgeon was tending her resignation as First Minister, most in Scotland were caught off guard. This didn’t arrive after some great scandal – though the political heat had certainly risen in recent months – but was rather hastened by Sturgeon’s inner sense that it was time for her to go.

We’ve come to expect of late that political resignations are triggered by scandals – scandals of big enough proportion to knock the head honcho from their perch. Indeed, recent departures from high office in London have sharpened the image of a disgraced suit standing at a lectern, either fighting back tears or bloviating about how the bin fire they’ve left behind isn’t their fault.

Four Tory Prime Ministers have come and gone, and Sturgeon has remained. Compared to the rough and tumble shambles that is Westminster, Scotland’s politics enjoys relative stability. But that’s not to say it’s in a healthy state. Sturgeon took the reins just after the independence referendum, and the toxicity of the independence issue that has seeped into civic life has proved stubbornly difficult to cleanse.

I’ve not always found common ground with Sturgeon, but I’ve admired her ability to show a human side when the expectation to deliver pantomime is so often indulged by today’s politicians. Yesterday’s speech was on brand in its typical Sturgeon frankness. Apart from the irrelevant, class-less Douglas Ross, statements from across the political spectrum today were unanimous in, if nothing else, total respect for Sturgeon’s prowess as a leader. In time, I’m certain she’ll be remembered as the most talented politician of her generation.

Talented though she was, the lingering toxicity from 2014 speaks to the ‘stuck-ness’ of Scottish politics since. I’ve written on this blog before about the stalemate we find ourselves in, and it brings me no joy to say that what I predicted 2 years ago has come to pass. It’s been obvious since the fateful Supreme Court decision last year that Sturgeon has played all her cards and run out of road. It should concern supporters of Scottish independence that whoever takes her place will face the same fundamental problem of a constitutional dead end.

Away from the divide of ayes and naws, Sturgeon leaves a mixed legacy. Her policy record has been underscored by good intentions but defined by real shortcomings. On education, Scotland has skidded down international rankings and the attainment gap between rich and poor (the reduction of which Sturgeon staked her political reputation on) has barely budged. On health, drug deaths in Scotland have passed crisis level while the SNP’s NHS missteps are only overshadowed by the even more calamitous Tory mismanagement down in England.

Her critics will no doubt pillory her for these failings, but Sturgeon has reasons to be proud of her time in office. She provided important calm through the choppy waters of Covid, all at a time when her every decision was undermined by the lockdown merry-go-round set in motion by Johnson and co. She has fought Scotland’s corner on Europe, and her commitment to trans rights, feminism and fighting poverty has been unwavering and earned her widespread admiration among Scottish youth. Anybody celebrating or denouncing her premiership as a tale of success or failure is only telling half a story.

Sturgeon’s resignation is a time for reflection on her time in office. However as soon as she exited the conference room attention inevitably turned, like clockwork, to who would take her place. Nobody has yet thrown their hat in the ring, but rest assured the starting gun has already been fired on the race to replace.

Ministers will be calling other ministers, meeting with loyal activists, trying to work out the calculus of whether they stand a fighting chance. I would be foolish to offer a prediction of how things will pan out, though I will say I feel Angus Robertson would be the safest pair of hands. All that can be concluded with certainty about the victor is that – whoever eventually wins out – they will have the biggest of shoes to fill.

Words by Charlie Forbes

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