The Nicola Sturgeon Era in Scottish Politics Already Feels Fleeting and Ephemeral

Nicola Sturgeon tried to channel the desire for change in Scotland with a political style that was resolutely anti-populist and technocratic. The contradictions of this approach caught up with Sturgeon, and she leaves office without a transformative legacy.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon holding a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, on October 17, 2022. (David Cheskin / Getty Images)

How long was the strange political hegemony of the Scottish National Party (SNP) meant to last? On February 15, Nicola Sturgeon announced that she would resign as SNP leader and first minister of Scotland.

In a press conference at Bute House, the first minister’s official residence in Edinburgh, Sturgeon said that the proximate cause of her departure was the growing “brutality” of modern politics and the sense that she was no longer capable of advancing the SNP’s central cause of independence.

In other words, she is personally and politically exhausted. Who could blame her? Sturgeon was thirty-six when she became Scotland’s deputy first minister in 2007. She is now fifty-two and has served in Bute House for more than eight years. What legacy will she leave for her party and for Scottish politics in general?

Leaving on Her Own Terms

In that time, she has seen Brexit, COVID, and four Conservative prime ministers come and go. In 2021, Alex Salmond, her predecessor as SNP leader, launched a breakaway nationalist party, Alba, that has systematically amplified divisions within the independence movement. When asked for his response to the impending departure of his former protégé, all Salmond could muster was a backhanded compliment regarding Sturgeon’s “first rate” communication skills.

Last year’s Supreme Court decision seems to have been a turning point. In November, judges in London ruled that the Scottish Parliament did not have the constitutional authority to stage a second referendum on independence without Westminster’s consent.

Sturgeon’s reaction was muddled. Initially, she said that the next UK general election should be framed as a “de facto” referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future. Then she reconsidered that strategy by inviting SNP members to debate the party’s next steps at a special conference in Edinburgh at the end of March. (The conference has since been postponed.)

Voters noticed the confusion and, in recent months, both the SNP’s polling numbers and Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings have been on the slide. For the first time since becoming first minister in 2014, Sturgeon has started to look like a liability for Scottish nationalism rather than an asset. In the end, she detected the shift in public opinion and exited on her own terms, instead of waiting to be ousted by the electorate or her party.

From Insurgency to Triangulation

Still, Sturgeon leaves the SNP in an almighty mess. It has no credible route map to independence. There is growing public frustration with the Scottish government’s handling of devolved policy matters, such as health, education, and transportation. Meanwhile, the nationalist movement at large has been stripped of all radical substance by a decade and a half of relentless triangulation.

In Glasgow, the SNP-run administration is preparing a slate of public sector job losses and local government tax rises. In Aberdeen, SNP councillors are threatening hefty spending cuts. At Holyrood, ministers are locked in a bitter long-running pay dispute with the teaching unions.

All this feels painfully distant from the insurgent social democracy Sturgeon promised, or appeared to promise, when she succeeded Salmond eight years ago. In her inaugural election campaign as leader — the 2015 UK general election — Sturgeon railed against Westminster austerity, called for the removal of British nuclear weapons from the Clyde, and demanded the transfer of additional powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Today, her domestic political record looks thin. Her successes include setting up a nascent Scottish social security system, removing charitable tax breaks from private schools, and introducing new legal protections for victims of domestic abuse.

But against these achievements stands a litany of failures. Sturgeon abandoned her flagship pledge to eliminate the educational attainment gap between working-class Scottish students and their middle-class counterparts. She refused to scrap Scotland’s wildly iniquitous system of local government levies.

The SNP leader also allowed vast chunks of Scotland’s burgeoning green economy to be outsourced and parcelled off to the private sector. And she presided over a rampant overdose crisis that has marked Scotland out as the drugs death capital of Europe.

Secrecy and Clientelism

In addition, Sturgeon has drawn criticism for her secretive and clientelist style of government. In 2015, she awarded a £97 million ferry construction contract to Jim McColl, a financier with close ties to the SNP.

In 2016, she invited Andrew Wilson, a former SNP politician turned corporate PR consultant, to revamp the economic case for independence along rigidly neoliberal lines. In 2021, the MP Douglas Chapman quit his role as SNP treasurer citing a “lack of information” about the party’s finances.

Sturgeon’s exceptional political instincts and astute management of the Scottish media have mostly enabled her to escape the fallout from these scandals. And she has kept the SNP’s electoral juggernaut rolling by repeatedly dangling the prospect of independence in front of Yes voters — even when that prospect has been spectral, at best.

Eventually, however, she was caught by her own political hubris. The legislative consensus she built at Holyrood — which balanced the demands of Scottish business with those of public sector workers and a restive nationalist base — couldn’t survive the onset of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis. The ongoing culture war over transgender rights and reform of the Gender Recognition Act, eagerly stoked by the SNP’s unionist opponents, added an extra layer of stress.

The Great Moderation?

A few hours after Sturgeon announced her resignation on Wednesday, the Economist declared the end of “peak populism” in the UK. Sturgeon’s departure — coupled with Jeremy Corbyn’s apparently permanent expulsion from the Labour Party — signaled the start of “Britain’s great moderation,” its headline ran: “Pragmatism is taking hold north and south of the border.”

This verdict neatly encapsulates the way England’s media has routinely misread Scottish nationalism over the past fifteen years, as the SNP has extended its grip on Scotland’s political landscape and independence has increasingly dominated the country’s national agenda.

Sturgeon was never a populist politician, either in style or in content. Instead, her entire public brand — from Brexit to NATO to climate change — was constructed around a brilliantly executed form of anti-populism. And it was this anti-populism that made her at once a uniquely gifted political operator and an eminently forgettable one.

Sturgeonism spoke to Scotland’s desire for the illusion of change — for the least socially disruptive model of progress possible. Sturgeon’s major political accomplishment was making support for Scottish independence respectable and mainstream. At one point, during the depths of the COVID pandemic, twenty successive polls indicated that a majority of Scots wanted to leave the UK.

Yet even that aspect of her legacy is now beginning to fade. One survey, published on February 13, showed that less than 40 percent of Scots backed the breakup of the British state. The Sturgeon era is over. Already, it feels fleeting and ephemeral.