Breaking and very surprising news: Nicola Sturgeon, who has been First Minister of Scotland’s devolved parliament for 8 years, has announced this morning that she will be resigning. The press conference is at 11am UK time.
Sturgeon is a formidable politician - easily head and shoulders above not only her opposition but also her potential replacements.
She became First Leader in late 2014 in the wake of the lost Independence Referendum, replacing Alec Salmond. Over 8 years, she has maintained a high level of popularity, held her party together at a time, post- referendum defeat when it could easily have torn itself apart, seen off the splinter party led by a disgruntled Salmond and won a series of decisive electoral victories in both Scottish and UK elections which have made the SNP absolutely dominant in Scotland.
It’s not clear exactly why she is resigning. In a Jan 21 interview when pressed on whether she was ready to hand over the torch, she said she had plenty in the tank. There are three stories that have been in the news recently that could be partial explanations:
The “de-facto referendum”: this is an internal party matter, and therefore IMHO the strongest candidate, because it’s internal stuff that usually ends careers. In short, teh SNP is split between tortoises and hares. Sturgeon is a tortoise - she wants a slow, steady approach to independence, winning hearts and minds over time and only having a referendum when the result is all but guaranteed. Hares want to move faster - they think the slow and steady approach is a recipe for nothing ever changing, and want to call a referendum and use the energy of campaigning to get over the line. As leader, Sturgeon has tried to keep the hares on side by talking up the prospects of a referendum that at heart she doesn’t really think should happen. This can only go on for so long. The latest wheeze, in the teeth of the UK government confirming that they weren’t about to let a referendum happen, was that the next election should be a “de-facto” referendum. I.e. if the SNP and other pro-independence parties got 50%+1 votes, it should be taken as Scotland voting for full independence now. This was never really tenable because that’s not how general elections work, and Sturgeon has been - in the face of uncertain polls on independence - rowing back on this, to the increasing discontent of many in her party who saw it as one more betrayal. With the annual party conference coming up, a decision was going to have to be made and it would have been a very difficult time for her.
The second issue is a related potential scandal. It relates to a loan of £100,000 (big money in Scots politics) made by her husband Peter Murrell (who is Chair of the SNP) to the party. Sturgeon cannot recall when she first heard about her husband lending her party all this money. The reason the loan was needed appears to be to cover a bigger problem. The SNP started a referendum fighing fund (see above for how keen Sturgeon was on fighting a referendum) with the promise that the money would be ring-fenced solely for that purpose. Come teh release of the accounts, it seemed that were was no line for a referendum-fighting fund. The story was that the money was “woven through” the accounts, which not many people found convincing. There were strong suspicions that the money had simply been spent on general party business. Peter Murrell’s loan came shortly after, and the suspicion is that this is covering up misappropriation of funds.
The third potential cause is recent political drama of Sturgeon and the SNPs support for transgender rights. After a lot of consultation, the SNP recently passed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which has the effect of making it much easier for transgender people to change their legal sex (basically self-ID rather than a going through gatekeeping). This was controversial (of course) but the SNP had the votes to drive it through largely as originally drafted. For example, an amendment was proposed that convicted sex offenders would not be able to use the self-ID process; SNP MSPs were whipped against this amendment was narrowly defeated. Passing the bill was a big achievement but the UK government took the unprecedented - though legal - step of denying assent for the bill. The given grounds for this were that the bill if passed would change UK wide law, specifically with respect to the Equality Act. Sturgeon isn’t shy of a fight and I think would normally relish the chance to take on the UK government in a case where it was a) overrulling Scottish Parliament and b) in a culture war on which she was on the right side. However, after the Bill was passed, the story broke that a convicted double rapist had, after having been arrested and charged, declared that they were a transwoman - and had, while on remand been housed in a woman’s prison*. (The GRR was not in force, but Scottish Prison Policy was largely in line with the ideas behind the GRR.) This was a major political scandal and it damaged Sturgeon’s personal standing given that she had identified herself so closely with transgender rights and the GRR. The fact that she had ordered MSPs to vote against the amendment that would in future prevent similar scandals was, in particular, a difficult point to defend.
Between these three fairly major personal and political setbacks, it would be understandable if she feels sufficiently ground down that she doesn’t want to do this shit any more.
- A quickly released report from the SPS clarified that the rapist had been isolated from other prisoners, but by that point the issue was up and running, and Sturgeon had already stumbled on questions over the basic principle of whether rapists who later identified as transwomen should ever be in women’s prisons.