Sturgeon Steps Down: What’s Next for the Union and Scottish Independence?

Nicola Sturgeon yesterday shocked UK politics by announcing her intention to step down as Scottish First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Beyond the implications for the Scottish Government’s devolved policy agenda, Sturgeon was a significant force in UK-wide politics, leading the SNP to electoral success in both the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster, where it is currently the third-largest force.

Her decision to step down leaves a vacancy for the figurehead of the Scottish independence movement at a time when it finds itself at an impasse, constitutionally boxed-in by Westminster and divided internally between pragmatists and radicals.

Sturgeon stepping down with no obvious heavyweight successor also suits the Labour party, which ceded its dominant position in Scotland to the SNP in the wake of the 2014 referendum. A Labour resurgence in Scotland would ease Keir Starmer’s path towards a majority and negate a key line of attack the Tories were looking to deploy — that under a potential hung parliament, a weak Starmer would be beholden to Sturgeon for support.

Sturgeon: Scotland Needs the Energy of New Leadership

Nicola Sturgeon has been under sustained pressure in recent weeks but her decision to step down from a role she has held since November 2014 — becoming the longest-serving First Minister in the process — still came as a surprise. In a hastily arranged press conference, she denied it was a response to recent controversies and that this was a decision she had been wrestling with for weeks.

Sturgeon said that while it had been a “privilege beyond measure” to serve as First Minister, she cited the pressure of life as a prominent politician with the current state of political discourse, and said that, combined with the pressure of leading Scotland through the Covid-19 pandemic, this had taken its toll on her. She said that Scotland needs the “energy of leadership it deserves” and that she could no longer provide this.

She also acknowledged that “the cause of independence is much bigger than any one individual.” She recognized that most people had fixed views about her and that fresh leadership could depolarize and refocus the debate on issues as opposed to personalities.

In terms of next steps, she noted that the SNP National Executive Committee would set out the timetable for electing her replacement as party leader over the coming days and that she will remain in office until the new leader is elected.


Analysis and Implications

Sturgeon’s announcement is significant for the future direction of the Scottish government and its devolved policy agenda. But beyond that she has been a significant figure in UK politics over the past eight and half years — as widely acknowledged even by her political opponents — and it also leaves a vacancy for the figurehead of the Scottish independence movement.

Her imminent departure was not widely anticipated — less than a month ago Sturgeon said that she felt she had “plenty more in the tank” — although she did say that if she ever got to the point of not being able to give the job what it deserved, she would step aside.

What changed in the meantime? It’s not clear which straw broke the camel’s back, but her net approval, while still relatively enviable given her long tenure, slipped into negative territory for the first time last month. She has struggled to deliver promised improvements in devolved policy areas such as health and education — Scotland has the highest drug death rate in Europe for example — despite using Scotland’s fiscal powers to raise taxes above those of the rest of the UK.

In recent weeks she was forced onto the defensive over trans rights, an issue that has bitterly divided her party and the wider pro-independence movement. Firstly, Scotland’s legislation on gender recognition was blocked by the UK government, the first time it has ever exercised this power. While Sturgeon may have welcomed the constitutional clash, her judgement was questioned more fundamentally amid a public outcry over a specific case involving a transgender woman — convicted of two rapes prior to transitioning — being initially placed in a female-only prison. She also faced questions over what she knew about a loan to the SNP from her husband, which the Electoral Commission ruled broke numerous reporting rules.

Beyond such short-term challenges — which she denied were behind her decision and of the sort she had faced before — are the deeper challenges facing the Scottish independence movement, which finds itself at an impasse, boxed-in constitutionally. Last November, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament requires the consent of the UK Government to legislate a second independence referendum. This verdict was widely expected and there was a sense that, in pursuing the legal route, Sturgeon was playing for time and trying to manage the divide in her party and wider independence movement, which are both increasingly fracturing.

Not only are there divisions on wedge issues like trans rights but also more fundamentally between pragmatists (who see the case for independence resting on good governance) and radicals (who are open to Scotland declaring independence unilaterally). While the primacy of the SNP is undisputed, the impressive internal discipline post-2014 has gone with mounting dissent in the ranks and some MPs and members joining the new breakaway Alba Party led by former SNP leader and First Minister Alex Salmond.

It may also be the case that for the foreseeable future, the optimal political climate for independence has passed even aside from the constitutional limitations. Years of political turmoil at Westminster, a Brexit forced on Scotland (62% of Scots voted to Remain) and support for Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic gave independence a sustained polling lead throughout 2020, but the general trend over the past couple of years has favored the unionist cause.

Meanwhile, the revival of Labour under Keir Starmer also threatens one of the SNP’s key arguments to left-leaning voters that independence is the best bulwark against Tory rule in Westminster. Indeed, with the SNP having won 48/59 Scottish seats in 2019, a Labour resurgence in Scotland would ease Starmer’s path towards a majority and weaken a key line of attack the Tories were looking to deploy — that under a potential hung parliament, a weak Starmer would be beholden to Sturgeon for support.

At next month’s SNP conference, the party will be asked to approve the future direction of travel on the independence movement. In essence, this conference will determine if the party should treat the upcoming general election as a de facto referendum on independence. Sturgeon cited in her press conference that she could not — in good faith — express a view on this direction if she was not willing to see it through.


Potential Successors

Angus Robertson MSP (Edinburgh Central)

Robertson is the current Culture and External Affairs Secretary in the Scottish Government. He formerly served as the SNP leader in Westminster until 2017. He is currently the frontrunner to be the next SNP leader according to the betting odds.

Kate Forbes MSP (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch)

Forbes serves as Finance Minister in the Scottish Government and is widely regarded as a young, rising star in the party. Raised in Scotland and India, she is a fluent Gaelic speaker and a devout Christian. She is currently on maternity leave.

Keith Brown MSP (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane)

Brown is the current Justice Secretary and Deputy Leader of the SNP. He is a former Royal Marine, who served in the Falklands war, and is reportedly very close to Nicola Sturgeon. It is thought he is in favor of treating the next general election as a de facto referendum on independence.

John Swinney MSP (Perthshire North)

Swinney is a veteran of the SNP and currently serves as Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery. He was an SNP Westminster MP from 1997-2001 and served as party leader between 2000 and 2004. Following his re-election in the Scottish elections of 2021, Swinney became the longest-serving elected Parliamentarian in Scotland.

Humza Yousaf MSP (Glasgow Pollock)

Yousaf is the current Health Secretary in the Scottish Government. Elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011 at the age of 26, he became the youngest ever MSP. Formerly the Minister for External Affairs and International Development, he is also the first person from an ethnic minority background to serve as a minister in the Scottish Government.