Tribal politics weighed on Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announces her resignation on Wednesday in Edinburgh. (Jane Barlow/Pool via Reuters)
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announces her resignation on Wednesday in Edinburgh. (Jane Barlow/Pool via Reuters)

When Nicola Sturgeon became first minister of Scotland in 2014, she pledged to unite a country riven two months earlier by a fiercely contested referendum on Scottish independence from Britain. As a member of the Scottish National Party (SNP) from the age of 16, she was an ardent independence supporter; voters backed remaining in the United Kingdom, 55 percent to 45 percent.

“I will be first minister for all of Scotland”, Sturgeon said in her first official address to the Scottish Parliament. “Regardless of your politics or your point of view, my job is to serve you”.

On Wednesday, 3,009 days after making that pledge, Sturgeon announced a surprise end of her eight-year tenure. Her resignation speech included a stark admission that the country was now more polarized than ever and she had lost faith in her ability to build bridges or foster consensus.

“I feel more and more each day now that the fixed opinions people increasingly have about me … are being used as barriers to reasoned debate in our country”, Sturgeon noted wearily.

The centuries-old question of the relationship with England casts a shadow over all political debate in Scotland, but in recent weeks, a much more modern question of identity dominated the agenda: transgender rights. A controversial attempt to liberalize the process for legally changing one’s gender — the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill — sparked an intense SNP backbench rebellion, especially after Sturgeon struggled to handle a controversy over a rapist who transitioned genders to female and was housed in a women’s prison before being moved. Sturgeon became the focus of a corrosive social media war about the definition of a woman.

In the news conference that followed Sturgeon’s resignation on Wednesday (she will remain in office until a successor is elected), reporters understandably wondered whether a politician traditionally known for her cautious and careful approach had been destroyed by a foolhardy commitment to radical gender ideology. Yet while Sturgeon’s handling of this issue certainly generated negative headlines and genuine public concern, damaging her standing, the episode seems unlikely to have been a mortal threat to her political hegemony — or the SNP’s — if she had desired to stay in office.

The SNP has won eight elections in eight years under Sturgeon, and few observers believed the next British general election, due no later than January 2025, would see Scotland return a substantively different result.

There is, however, no doubt that her ability to bridge the gap between supporters of Scottish independence and those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom has waned. The most dramatic election result of her tenure was the May 2015 U.K. election — soon after her pledge to be a unifying force — when the SNP won an astonishing 56 of the 59 seats contested in Scotland. It was a result notable for the fact that many voters who disagreed with Sturgeon on the question of independence had nonetheless been willing to vote for her. There is little evidence that this would still be the case, with voting patterns now almost entirely dictated by where you stand on the constitutional issue.

Other factors might have played a part in Sturgeon’s decision. The responsibility of steering the country through the coronavirus pandemic has taken an obvious physical and mental toll, as it did with Jacinda Ardern, who announced her resignation as New Zealand’s prime minister last month.

In a range of domestic policy areas, including health and education, the Scottish government’s track record is patchy. But the true impact of the transgender row seems to have been Sturgeon’s realization that she was no longer able to influence the views of those outside her traditional support base.

Sturgeon’s resignation speech also included a plea for a fresh start, urging Scotland’s political parties to “depolarize public debate”, “focus more on issues than on personalities” and “reset the tone and tenor of our discourse”.

Sturgeon’s farewell offered no self-reflection about her own contributions to the country’s polarization, but that might have been beside the point. Lately the tribal nature of the independence debate in Scotland — amplified by the social media echo chamber — has made the normal functioning of politics seem next to impossible. Is that any different from the impact of Brexit in Britain or of Donald Trump in the United States?

They say all political careers end in failure. Nicola Sturgeon might have come to the unsettling conclusion that politics itself has failed.

David Clegg is editor of the Courier, a newspaper based in Dundee, Scotland, and co-author of “Break-Up: How Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon Went to War”.

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