Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to resign as First Minister of Scotland signals the end of a political era and as is well known, has subsequently triggered the first SNP leadership election in nearly 20 years.
Nicola Sturgeon is a formidable politician and will leave a remarkable legacy including being the longest serving First Minister of Scotland and the first woman to hold the position. However, her decision leaves no immediate and obvious successor and raises questions over the state of the SNP and the path towards Scottish independence. For years we have been accustomed to seeing political resignations as a result of scandal, internal party pressures or devastating electoral defeats. It is therefore a relatively rare phenomenon to see a politician resign at a time of their own choosing.
Yet, in recent months Nicola Sturgeon is the second politician to resign their post by choice. She follows in the footsteps of Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern who announced her resignation in January. Sturgeon and Ardern are both leaders who smashed the glass ceiling to reach the top job in politics. While Sturgeon has had her own political challenges with controversial policies and Ardern was facing declining popularity, neither were facing immediate calls to resign. According to an Ipsos Mori poll, Sturgeon enjoyed a 43% favourability rating just days before announcing her departure, so it is remarkable that she, like Ardern, chose her own moment to go while holding a relatively strong political position. New polling conducted the day after Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation found that 59% of the Scottish public believed Nicola Sturgeon had changed Scotland for the better (a statistic many politicians can only dream of), while over half of the public (54%) said that Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation will have a negative impact on the case for Scottish independence.
Interestingly, Nicola Sturgeon hoped her resignation would give politicians the opportunity to “de-polarise public debate just a bit, to focus more on issues, and to reset the tone and tenor of our discourse”. Given she and her party stand on the forefront of pursuing one of the most polarising issues in politics, and the Scottish political landscape is stuck in ‘Yes’ versus ‘No’, this statement doesn’t necessarily fit with the SNP’s agenda and the nature of current political debate.
As the SNP leadership contest begins, it signals the end of the Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney era of the SNP. It could create an opportunity for a massive shift in how the party functions, how it governs and how it positions itself on the issue of independence. It will be inevitable that personality and identity politics will come to the forefront of the debate for a while. However, once this has shifted, we might hope that elected officials, party members, organisations and members of the public will be looking for a candidate with a clear vision for the country and how they will tackle issues such as the NHS, education and the economy. Meanwhile, Yes voters will be looking for strong government and a credible plan to secure independence. It is no secret that Nicola Sturgeon leaves behind a number of political challenges for her successor, not least the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. To steady the ship, it is crucial that the leadership contest moves away from the polarising issues and focuses on other policy areas of interest to the general public. Not only will the new leader have party political and domestic issues to face, geopolitical issues impact Scotland more than ever. The economic crisis, war in Ukraine, and the climate emergency will continue to have a significant impact on the people and policy in Scotland.
After 15 years in power, the SNP is still ahead in the polls and most commentators tip them for further electoral success. However, there is no doubt that the SNP gloss has begun to fade and the opposition parties undoubtedly smell political blood in the water. If the SNP continues down the path of identity politics and controversy, attitudes towards the party and potential independence could undergo a major shift.
So what next? It will be difficult for the SNP, certainly in the short term, to replicate the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon and a leadership contest will undoubtedly expose divisions within the party. Whilst this infighting has already dominated the news and social media in just the first few days, there is a huge challenge to be faced by the party to present a united front to the electorate. A challenge they must overcome if the party has aspirations for another 15 years in power.