Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unexpectedly resigns {2023-02-15}

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.

She’s speaking now.

Says it’s not about recent events. She has spent some time asking herself if it is still right for the country and party for her to be in the role.

She has been doing this for 17 years. It is harder for her to deliver the energy and intensity the job requires. Especially now there is no break, not even for coffee with friends. Covid was particularly tough, of course - although tougher for others, the responsibility she had was immense.

She has more months in her, but not more years. So she will not pretend she does.

On de-facto referendum - she thinks its the best available option, knows it is controversial. She is standing down now so that the debate can be totally free - no point in her having input if she won’t be around, so she should get out the way now.

Says she is confident she can and would lead the party to more electoral success. PArty is firmly on course to win. But longer any leader is in office, the more opinions about them become fixed and hard to change. She believes there is a majority for independence. That needs solidified by reachnig across the divide. As people’s minds are made up about her, and views polarised, a new leader has a better chance of achieving this.

She feels more and more that fixed opinions about her are becoming barriers to debate. She sees to many things presented through teh lens of what people think about her, not on their own merits. She is trying to depolarise public debate by taking herself out of the conversation. Calls for other leaders to work to reach out and halt depolarisation.

Not leaving politics - many issues she cares about and will champion in future. Including: commitment to care-experienced young people. And of course independence, a cause she believes in with every fibre of her being. Talks of attending a funeral of a lifelong friend and independence supporter; realised then she was committed to this decision, and realising the cause could be supported in many ways.

Time to reflect on her achievements in future days and weeks but now: Scotland has changed for the better - young people from deprived areas have best ever chance of going to university, better support for early years is helping children and mothers. Scottish welfare system supports families better than others. Protections from domestic abuse have increased. Creating new tax and social security agencies, new investment bank, trade offices across the world. Much more to achieve for her predecessor.

Thanks husband and family for all their support, the party for honour of being their leader. Finally people of Scotland.

What does this do for the Scottish independent movement? Who is poised to be the leader in this?

She is a brilliant politician - although I don’t particularly like politics of division which the SNP sort of naturally has to adopt. Labour will see this as a great opportunity to make some gains in Scotland. They need to take some seats there to stand a good chance of ousting the Tories from government.

ETA @Stanislaus 3 posts up.

But your intro is very high quality. Thank you for that.

And the other thread has rapidly degenerated / hijacked into Pit-worthiness. I’d rather that one be closed as irredeemable having jumped the tracks almost immediately, than have its mess imported into this thread. But I don’t get a vote.

Turning to the topic at hand …

For a USAian I follow British & Scottish politics rather closely. What I find confusing about the Scottish independence “hares” is that’s essentially how Brexit happened.

Namely that a bunch of hard-over partisans for the project got ahead of the facts, ahead of the detailed planning for the aftermath, and ahead of the public then cheer-led that public to a 50% plus a smidgen result where the actual voting was often not actually on the question asked, but on the usual wooly ball of how much the public hates their lives at the moment, and hates the sitting government leadership. With less than stellar turnout to boot.

The predictable result is that nobody is happy. The 50% less a smidgen who voted against are being dragged to a who-knows-where that’s vastly different from before. And the 50% plus a smidgen are now realizing that the long list of glittering generalities of benefits with no downsides that they voted for was a snowjob. Benefits are to be had post-change, at least for those of the right mindset and those in the right parts of the economy. But the idea that post-change is all rainbows and unicorns has been comprehensively dashed for all.

And now the SNP “hares” want to re-enact this Brexit scenario with a quickie Scottish Independence referendum in the face of so much recent unhappy governmental / economic experience? And further expect their voters to think the same in light of their own unhappy personal experiences?

Color me confused bemused.

Kudos to the OP on a very thorough post that actually gave me some insight into something that, up to now, I knew absolutely nothing about.

So, Stanislaus, any predictions on how things will play out?

The parallels between “Scexit” and Brexit have been noted by various commentators, and you’re not wrong to draw them yourself.

By far the best platform for independence is widespread support based on a clear prospectus of both the costs and benefits. If we vote for such a prospectus in large numbers, we’ll all know what we’re getting and we’ll clearly be happy with it. The “just get it over the line” approach doesn’t get you that and is (I generalise) more in favour with people who see independence as a good in itself - not a mere pathway to a fairer, more prosperous Scotland (although they believe it would be that) but a valuable outcome in its own right. I respect that point of view even if I don’t agree with it. I actually have more trouble with the arguments that independence is a way to implement central-left policies that don’t win UK elections, even though I support those policies.

In any case, the role of Brexit in the indpendence debate is two-edged. On the one hand, Scotland voted to Remain, so that right there is a clear case for independence - a major shift in economic relationships with big trading partners that was rejected by the nation. On the other, as you say, we’ve seen the shit that breaking up political and economic unions brings down upon us, so the appetite for more but worse is likely limited.

Admittedly begin drug out of the EU against their expressed wishes rankles with many Scots. And rather rightly so.

If a successful independence referendum was assured to lead to actual independence (not just endless bickering with London), and to near immediate automatic re-accession to the EU, that would certainly make a “hare” referendum a much more attractive proposition, all else equal.

I have a few elderly Scots friends here in the US. Their overall attitude on independence over all the various efforts formal and informal over the last 40 years seems to cluster around “My heart says ‘Yes’; my head says ‘No’”.

Which also sounds a lot like how the UK writ large felt about Brexit.

As Obama almost said: “Voting with your spleen has consequences.”

Nothing I’d bet a lot of money on.

Sturgeon is staying in place until her successor is chosen. I have no idea who that will be, and neither does anyone else. In her speech, Sturgeon included remarks to the effect that when one person (her) is so dominant in the political landscape, it can be hard for others to make their talents seen. This is a very diplomatic way of addressing the fact that no-one else in the SNP government has any kind of popular profile or achievements to their name. As noted in this comment on these astonishing polling results of potential successors:

69% of people saying Don’t Know reflects just how well these guys have been hiding their talents.

Of those listed:

Kate Forbes is currently Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy; she is also a member of the Free Church of Scotland, or Wee Frees, a devout but largely unpleasant breakaway from teh Church of Scotland who believe that gay marriage is a sin, excommunicates members for attending the funerals of Catholic friends and are generally pretty fundamentalist and unpleasant. She doesn’t talk about her faith much but she did in 2018 make an anti-abortion speech at a prayer breakfast. If she runs, she will have to talk about her faith a lot more.

John Swinney is Deputy First Minister, but doesn’t really have a lot of accomplishments past that. Angus Robertson was head of the SNP in Westminster until he was recently ousted in a coup - he is a Sturgeon loyalist, his defenestrators were ‘hares’. He is quite good at making speeches.
A name I’m surprised not see on the list is Hamza Yousuf, current Cab Sec for Health because he does have a reasonable proflie. I don’t know if he’s previously said he’d never stand or is otherwise ruled out.

At that point, my knowledge/recognition dries up. I am not particularly close to internal SNP politics, and that of course is where this decision will be made.

However, once we have a new and widely unknown leader, the game is blown wide open. Sturgeon commanded huge levels of trust and respect across the country and that was a major asset for the SNP. The new leader will be learning a lot about leading a government while on the job, voters will be more skeptical than hitherto and possibly more open to considering other parties. The next general election will be no later than the end of 2024, which is not a lot of time for a new leader to make their mark, but it is plenty of time for other parties to capitalise on early mistakes.

The SNPs dominance of Scotland is a very new phenomenon. Until very recently Labour was used to sweeping the board, getting over 40 of Scotland’s 59 or so MPs. In 2015 they got swept away by the SNP, reduced to just 1 MP in Scotland as the SNP won 50 seats. They have made minor gains since then. But, there’s an opportunity now. They are currently on track to gain 4 seats on a 5% swing. A 13% swing would net them 26 seats. There are a lot of very excited people in Scottish Labour head office right now. (The Tories will also be hoping to gain, but there will be little direct SNP-Tory swing - their gains will come from falling SNP votes.)

I hesitate to make predictions - every outcome from “New leader takes over with only minor polling dips” to “The SNP pulls itself apart in a divisive leadership contest thus ending its current hegemony over Scottish politics” is on the table.

Holy cow, “Don’t Know” is a whopping 69%, and none of the prospects even have double digit support! I think that redefines, “wide open race”. :flushed:

Were I citizen there, I think I’d vote for Angus because it is a really cool name. LOL

A further point on this. All political parties have their internal debates and rivalries. As someone who is quite interested in UK politics, I can tell you quite a lot about the factional divisions within Labour and the Tories. I can’t tell you much about the SNP fault lines.

This is really fucking weird, actually. The reason I know about Labour and Tory internal disputes isn’t because I dedicate a lot of effort to sniffing them out from obscure sources. I know about them because they appear in my newspaper and on my TV. Political correspondents discuss them, members of various factions openly disagree with each other in public and this is reported on as important news. Why doesn’t the same happen with the SNP?

Part of it is their incredible message discipline, which puts Blair and Mandelson’s New Labour to shame. But part of it surely has to be an inexplicable lack of interest from the press, which is not going to last for much longer.

I guess partly (a) because Scotland is small. Political machinations in, say, NW England (larger population than Scotland) don’t make the national UK news either.
And (b) Sturgeon has been pretty ruthless about dissent. You’re either with her or you’re the enemy. Succession planning does not ever seem to have entered her mind, which explains the slim pickings on offer. Maybe someone from outside her faction will take over, Joanna Cherry say. Some excitable people are even whispering the name Salmond.

I think that while the gender recognition row may have been the catalyst, the main reason she’s resigning is that she knows that independence isn’t happening on her watch. For years she has had to throw scraps of “independence real soon now” to the “hares”, but time has run out. Absent of independence, the tedious business of running (some aspects) of the country perhaps doesn’t seem appealing. Along with the other problems that she faces, mentioned above, and IMO the fact that her strengths are more about presentation and connecting with ordinary folk than actually running a government, she can’t face it any more.

I can understand how the UK national press is focused on Westminster politics, but what about the Scottish press? I would assume, perhaps wrongly, that internal machinations within the SNP get stewed over in Scotland, especially as the SNP isn’t quite as universally worshipped, according to my Scottish relatives, as the message we tend to get over in England.

You’d think it would crop up in the Scottish press, wouldn’t you? But only to the slimmest degree. I couldn’t actually put names to the ‘tortoises’ and ‘hares’ with any hope of success; compare that to my unlooked for knowledge about membership of the ERG, or my ability to put any prominent Labour MP on the hard-left:centrist spectrum. No names, no pack drill. But equally, no outriders, few public spats and incredible message discipline. What does Mhairi “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me” Black think about the swingeing cuts to council budgets Kate Forbes pushed through in the last budget? Beats me.

Wow. Be interesting to see if Fortress SNP PR falls apart. Got to admire their discipline, can’t possibly last - these are politicians with egos after all!

This actually reminds me greatly of the latter years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship in Germany. She too dominated her party who dominated the news cycle even more than her party dominated the Bundestag. In a mostly benign fashion to all indications.

But when it approached her time to go, there was a bit of a giant sucking sound as everybody started looking around for credible successors and kept finding unknown apparatchiks. The mostly-hidden fault lines in her party suddenly appeared to the light of day. The CDU/CSU duality being a distinct issue Germany has that Scotland does not.

In Merkel’s case she announced she would not seek reelection a long time before that election, such that her party had enough time to develop a consensus candidate (Olaf Scholz). At the risk of course of Merkel becoming what the US calls a “lame duck” leader meanwhile. In the event the last bit of Merkel’s leadership and the first part of Scholz’ seems to have gone well enough.

Whether Sturgeon has announced her resignation / non-candidacy too soon, too late, or just right remains to be seen.

What is the timeline for the party to choose a new leader?

Not heard anything, but the special national party conference to set the strategy on achieving independence is scheduled from March 19th so I imagine the party would want the leader in place by then. But it’s not long!

Alternatively that becomes the forum for hustings and election alongside the new strategy, which would work well in some ways but could equally be very divisive.

A further point on this. There is an active police investigation into where all the ring-fenced money went. That investigation started back in July. It is rumoured that Murrell’s loan is now iwthin the scope of the investigation. Sturgeon and police have failed to say when asked whether she has been contacted by the police in this matter.

A cynical person would wonder if this was a good time to get out.

Very similar.

An interesting point about Merkel is that not long after she left, her reputation had taken a major hit. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ability to hold Germany hostage to its gas supply painted her foreign and domestic policy in a rather different light. Sturgeon obviously doesn’t have the same liabilities but I wouldn’t be surprised if new circumstances and/or new information puts her record in a very different light.