Nicola Sturgeon has left at the right time, maybe even a bit late. Although one of the most influential politicians the UK has seen in recent times, she was also one of the most divisive.
Her ability to fan Scotland’s sense of difference from England brought new hope to the independence movement, but this cause – by which she measured herself above all others – has been losing ground and for now, looks to be in abeyance.
Neat and disciplined, Sturgeon could not have presented a greater contrast to Boris Johnson in the first months of the pandemic. That was one of her finest moments.
She used the powers of the devolved government to make different lockdown decisions for Scotland – never all that different from those in England but often announced just a few hours earlier.
Although analysts surmise that these made little difference to the death rate – although poverty and other health support factors make comparisons hard – she used the platform, with the cameras on her, to ram home the point that Scotland could set its own rules.
Rallying young voters to independence
Her second greatest moment was in the aftermath of Brexit. Scots voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union (EU) and so, she argued, they should have the right to leave the UK to join that other union. Younger voters in particular responded, rallying to the independence cause.
But two recent setbacks showed her star was fading. She lost the Supreme Court battle to hold a second independence referendum in November, when she was told Scotland simply did not have the powers to hold one on its own if Westminster said no – and the UK government did just that. It was hard to see how her campaign for independence could move forwards.
And her planned reforms to the gender recognition process in Scotland have been blocked by the UK government – but unease about her reforms within Scotland meant this rebuff did not win her the support at home she hoped for. She was also accused of playing politics by pressing ahead with unpopular reforms simply because of their potential to discomfit the UK government.
Health, education, and public services need attention
Other challenges were also building up and, even if less eye-catching, her successor is likely to focus on health and education above the birth of a new nation. Sturgeon’s critics have long argued that under Scottish National Party rule, health, education, and other public services have declined.
In elections, these factors can be eclipsed by passions about independence but it is rare in political life for a leader to be insulated from public anger on this front. This is almost certainly where her successor will want to focus first.