Nicola Sturgeon is leaving on her own terms with a legacy to be proud of
“I’m only human.” With those three words Nicola Sturgeon surprised political friends and foes alike as she announced her departure from Bute House after eight years as Scotland’s first minister.
Perhaps Scotland’s finest politician of the post-war era, she has an armoury of political skills. Many were on display at her shock press conference. She was in turn fluent and funny, reflective and self-deprecating. So why is she going? Well to borrow a phrase from a politician with whom she is often compared - Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand - she reckons she doesn’t “have enough gas left in the tank” to carry on.
And she’s doing what so many leaders dream of doing but rarely achieve – she’s leaving at a time of her choosing, with high personal approval ratings, and her party’s nearest political rivals more than ten points behind.
You only have to type Nicola Sturgeon into Twitter to read some of the abuse she gets
She listed her achievements and reminded us that she is a vote winner. Eight national election wins in her eight years as first minister. At the last Holyrood election, the SNP won more votes than any political party since the Edinburgh Parliament was re-established. She has outlasted three Scottish Tory leaders, four Scottish Labour leaders, and she is now on her fifth UK Prime Minister.
But Scotland hasn’t achieved Nicola Sturgeon’s life goal – independence. And we are charting new territory. Throughout her lifetime, unionist leaders always made clear what they would regard as a mandate for independence. For Margaret Thatcher it was a majority of SNP MPs elected to the Commons. For David Cameron it was a referendum win. It was always agreed between both sides that ours is a voluntary union of nations and Scotland can leave when it chooses. But now there is a Labour and a Conservative leader who refuse to recognise the SNP’s election mandate based on the party’s manifesto commitment to hold a referendum. And that’s a problem.
Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t think this is a wise tactic by unionist leaders. After all, Scots whether pro or anti-independence believe that Scotland has the right to choose its future. And voters under 40 are passionately in favour of independence. But half of Scotland still opposes it. And it is her calculation that voters have such firm and established views about her – fair or unfair – that she is not the right person to win them over to the “Yes” camp. As she put it herself, entrenched views about her have sometimes become a barrier to reasoned debate.
She gave some insights into the personal sacrifices which come with the job. A first minister is never off duty. She’s always the focus of every room she enters. For a naturally shy person that must sometimes be a strain. She can’t go out for a walk on her own or go for a coffee with friends. As she put it, “I think I now want to spend time as Nicola Sturgeon the human being, not just as Nicola Sturgeon the politician.”
You only have to type Nicola Sturgeon into Twitter to read some of the abuse she gets. Much of it misogynistic. A lot of it cruel beyond description. She wouldn’t be human if that didn’t take its toll.
Leaders, she said, often “cling on and on and on. And there’s always a reason to stay.” But she’s chosen to leave the stage. At only 52, there will be another chapter to come. A big international gig? She has admirers worldwide. But for now, at least, a stretch on the backbenches at Holyrood and more time in her beloved home library.
John Nicolson, Scottish National Party MP for Ochil and South Perthshire.
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