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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon looks out of Bute House in Edinburgh after she announced during a press conference that she will stand down. PA
Nicola Sturgeon

'The time is now': Nicola Sturgeon steps down amid recent 'choppy waters'

She insisted a few weeks ago that she had ‘plenty left in the tank’, but now leaves amid recent ‘short-term pressures’.

IN AN INTERVIEW less than a month ago, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon said she still had “plenty in the tank” following the sudden resignation of New Zealand’s prime minister.

Now, the 52-year-old is following Jacinda Ardern and stepping down as leader.

Sturgeon’s departure comes amid pressure from a fierce row over transgender rights, and as Scotland’s push to independence appears to stall.

The hastily announced departure of one of Britain’s most formidable politicians took even her own party by surprise, with SNP MP Angus B MacNeil tweeting: “This is as sudden as Jacinda Ardern… Geez.”

But like Ardern, Sturgeon said she felt unable to give “every ounce of energy that it needs” to see out the high-pressure job, and it was her “duty” to make way for a new SNP leader.

Acknowledging the strains of office after more than eight years as leader, and the same period as deputy first minister before that, she said: “I am a human being as well as a politician.”

However, Sturgeon denied that her decision to stand down is a reaction to “short-term pressures” after a series of political setbacks, including controversies over transgender reforms.

Rise to the top

Sturgeon will leave office as the longest serving and first female First Minister since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, a time which saw her lead the SNP to repeated election victories at UK, Scottish and local level.

She joined the SNP aged 16, becoming politicised in the 1980s when Conservative Margaret Thatcher, still widely reviled by many in Scotland, was Britain’s prime minister.

She studied law at Glasgow University and stood unsuccessfully for the House of Commons in 1992, aged just 21, before starting her career as a lawyer.

When the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999, with Labour ahead of the SNP as the biggest party, Sturgeon was one of its first wave of lawmakers.

She became leader unopposed following the ill-fated independence referendum in 2014, wherein 55.3% of the Scottish electorate voted to remain a member of the United Kingdon.

Sturgeon took over from then-leader Alex Salmond, the mentor with whom she would come into conflict in the years to come over the handling of sexual harassment allegations made against him.

Amid the Covid pandemic, in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, the SNP won a record 64 of the 129 seats – but one short of a majority on its own.

It allied with the Greens to continue in government.

However, the build-up to these elections were marred by mudslinging between Sturgeon and Salmond, who formed his own pro-independence party called Alba in the run-up to the 2021 elections.

However, the fledgling Alba party failed to win a single seat.

Speaking to Sky News today, Salmond hailed her work as a “political communicator” and added that this came to the fore during the Covid pandemic.

He also paid tribute to her ability to win elections.

However, he criticised her handling of transgender reforms in Scotland and her approach to Scottish Independence.

Transgender Reforms

Sturgeon suffered a series of political setbacks in recent months as her Government sought to push through gender reforms, only for them to be blocked by Westminster.

In late December, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) voted to pass the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which removes the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria to obtain a gender recognition certificate.

However, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, who is a member of the Scottish Conservatives, made a Section 35 order – a never before utilised section of the 1998 Scotland Act – to prevent the Bill from gaining royal assent.

Jack claimed that the Bill would have “chilling effects on single-sex spaces” for women.

The controversy then erupted over a male rapist who had changed gender after being convicted.

Opponents to the Bill argued that this vindicated their concerns about the effects it could have on “single-sex spaces” for women.

Isla Bryson, 31, previously known as Adam Graham, was convicted at the High Court in Glasgow of raping one woman in 2016 and another in 2019.

However, Bryson’s estranged wife questioned her former partner’s motives for the decision in newspaper interviews.

“Never once did he say anything to me about feeling he was in the wrong body or anything,” she told the Daily Mail of Bryson, adding it was a “sham for attention”.

Late last month, Sturgeon confirmed that Bryson would not be incarcerated at a women’s prison, and said she hoped the decision provided “assurance to the public”.

While Sturgeon is hailed by many, including Salmond, for her ability to communicate, she appeared to struggle to answer questions around gender and single-sex spaces in an interview with ITV.

She said there are circumstances where “trans women will be housed in the male prison estate” but acknowledged that there is no context she is aware of in which a woman, assigned female at birth, would be held in a male prison.

Sturgeon insisted the row surrounding the possibility of Bryson being sent to a women’s jail “wasn’t the final straw”. Instead, she said it is “time for someone else” to lead the party.

Meanwhile, Stonewall – which campaigns on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – praised Sturgeon for “unwavering commitment to advancing the rights of all marginalised people in Scotland”.

But speaking to Sky News this afternoon, Alex Salmond described Sturgeon’s handling of the gender recognition bill as one of a “multitude of problems in terms of policy delivery”.

Salmond labelled it a “major misstep” and questioned why she didn’t come to a “compromise” with “rebel back benchers” and Scottish Secretary Alaistair Jack.

While Salmond said it “was causing a great deal of damage,” he added that it isn’t the “single explanation” as to why she is stepping down.

However, a YouGov poll taken amid the controversy showed that Sturgeon’s popularity had taken a hit and fallen into the negative territory, from +7% in October of last year to -4% net approval when the poll was taken between 23-26 January.

The Sunday Times’ commissioned poll also found that support for the SNP in Scottish elections also fell to its lowest level in five years at 44%.

Scottish Independence

Last November, the Supreme Court in London sided with the UK government’s contention that Edinburgh lacked the power to call a new independence referendum on its own.

The Scottish government wanted to hold a vote on 19 October 2023 but first sought legal clarity that it could go ahead.

Sturgeon said the ruling exposed the “myth” that Scotland could voluntarily leave the United Kingdom.

The SNP-led government would now look to use the UK election due by early 2025 as a “de facto referendum” on separating after more than 300 years, Sturgeon said.

But several surveys have shown waning popular support for breaking away, after Scottish voters rejected independence in 2014.

A recent YouGov poll found support for Scottish independence dropped from 53% to 47%, the lowest level since last spring.

Meanwhile, Salmond criticised Sturgeon’s approach to a second referendum.

“Going to the Supreme Court and asking for their advice was inexplicable as a political strategy,” said Salmond.

“The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is not the sort of institution which guides you through ways to dissolve the United Kingdom. So many people, including myself, thought that was extraordinary.”

Salmond also described Sturgeon’s decision to step down as a “puzzle” given she said the next UK general election would be a “de facto referendum”.

“Why isn’t that being seen through, that’s one of the big questions for the future,” Salmond told Sky News.

He also claimed that there is “no obvious successor” to the SNP leadership.

“Nicola was the obvious successor back in 2014. Now, you’ve got a field of people where any one of a number could emerge as the winner.”

Sturgeon will remain as leader until a successor is appointed and also indicated that she will continue on the backbenches as an MSP “until certainly the next election” for Holyrood, which is due in 2026.

-With additional reporting from © AFP 2023 

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