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Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, flag-bearer for independence, to resign

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced on Feb. 15 she will resign from her role. She has served in the position for more than eight years. (Video: Scottish Government)
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LONDON — Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland and a relentless advocate for Scottish independence, announced her surprise resignation on Wednesday, saying she no longer felt she could give the job her all. She also worried about her role as a polarizing figure in a country divided over its future in the United Kingdom.

“I believe that part of serving well would be to know, almost instinctively, when the time is right to make way for someone else,” she said. “In my head and in my heart, I know that time is now.”

A thorn in the side of successive British prime ministers, Sturgeon won international praise for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic and helped make Scotland a global leader on climate — even as she failed to make progress on her animating cause: independence.

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She said she would stay in place until a new leader was chosen by members of her Scottish National Party (SNP) — and afterward would serve as a backbench lawmaker in the Scottish Parliament.

Her remarks were intensely personal — and not overtly political. She took no parting shots and burned no bridges. She has recently faced head winds but no career-ending scandal.

Instead, Sturgeon spoke of feelings. She said she missed getting a coffee with a friend or going for a peaceful walk.

She didn’t say she was burned out but suggested she was tired.

Her withdrawal from front-line British politics, where she has been a fixture for years, had none of the soap-opera drama and head-spinning chaos of the departures of British Prime Ministers Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who were all essentially sacked by their own Conservative Party — May for bungling Brexit, Johnson for serial mistruths and Truss for nearly crashing the economy.

Sturgeon said that although she was convinced that the SNP would dominate the next election, she felt that she no longer could give the job “absolutely everything,” which is the “only way to do it.”

She also cited a political environment of greater intensity, “dare I say brutality,” that has taken a toll on her and those around her.

Sturgeon said her decision was not a “reaction to short-term pressures,” but she has had a particularly rough few weeks, with the commentariat — even those who are pro-independence — having become quite critical.

Her party has been in turmoil over Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which would have made it easier for transgender people, as young as 16, to change their legal gender. The law was halted by the British government.

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She and her party also have been fighting over the direction of the independence movement. Sturgeon had said that the next Britain-wide general election, to be held no later than January 2025, should serve as a “de facto referendum” on independence. Many of her colleagues thought that was an overreach.

Sturgeon’s resignation remarks were similar to those made by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 42, who announced last month, “I have given my absolute all. I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”

Asked how Sturgeon went from telling the BBC she had “plenty in the tank” just three weeks ago to announcing her departure today, Sturgeon said, “I’m a human being. Every human being every day wrestles with a whole lot of conflicting emotions.”

She said she had been struggling with the decision since the start of the year. She said she could go on for “I dunno, six months, a year maybe,” but “I know that as time passed, I would have less and less energy to give to the job.”

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The 52-year-old Scottish leader has been in politics since she was a 16-year-old SNP activist, but as she stood at the lectern at Bute House, the first minister’s official residence in Edinburgh, she said she wanted to “spend a little more time on Nicola Sturgeon the person.”

After more than eight years on the job, she is the country’s longest-serving first minister, and she also served as deputy first minister for eight years before that.

Sturgeon has tangled over the years with a string of British prime ministers, most notably Boris Johnson, over issues of self-government. She maintains that Scots live by decisions made in faraway London by lawmakers and bureaucrats, and that Scots want full democracy and real freedom.

She became first minister in November 2014 — taking over from her older mentor, later antagonist, the former SNP leader Alex Salmond — after the failed independence referendum.

Sturgeon pressed Johnson to allow Scotland to stage another vote, especially after Brexit — which most Scottish voters opposed — had altered the landscape. But Johnson insisted that the 2014 exercise was a “once in a generation” vote.

Fervor for independence has remained mostly flat. A majority backed the idea at one point in the pandemic, when many in Scotland thought Sturgeon did a better job of handling the crisis than the British government did. But support for the idea has since fallen off.

One recent poll showed that 44 percent of Scots favored independence in comparison with 56 percent who did not — pretty much the same breakdown as in 2014, when 45 percent said yes and 55 percent said no.

Admitting that she had become a divisive figure, Sturgeon on Wednesday suggested that her departure could help the independence movement.

“I am firmly of the view that there is now majority support for independence,” she said. “But that support needs to be solidified — and it needs to grow further if our independent Scotland is to have the best possible foundation.”

Sturgeon said the next leader “must be able to reach across the divide in Scottish politics, and my judgment now is that a new leader would be better able to do this. Someone about whom the mind of almost everyone in the country is not already made up, for better or worse, someone who is not subject to the same polarized opinions, fair or unfair, as I now am.”

Sturgeon has been one of the most formidable politicians of her generation. And although her own approval ratings have recently taken a dip, they were not disastrous; indeed, by British standards, her polling has held up remarkably well during her leadership. YouGov, the pollster, says that for most of her leadership, the majority of Scots said she performed well.

Chris Deerin, the director of the think tank Reform Scotland, said it was unclear what impact her departure would have on independence — the founding purpose of her party.

“Even if she wasn’t delivering, she was a sure thing, well respected around the world, a part of the furniture, a convincing public speaker,” he said. “And you think, well, if she can’t deliver it, can someone who doesn’t have those qualities push it on?”

On the other hand, he said, it could be good for those who want independence to have a leader who “didn’t shout at Westminster, and complain how awful it is, and suggest Scotland is better at everything, when it’s demonstrably not.”

Paul Schemm contributed to this report.