Nicola Sturgeon, who has had the longest tenure of any Scottish first minister, announced her plans to resign on Wednesday, standing down with no obvious successor in place and dealing a blow to the fight for independence.
Sturgeon, 52, said she would stay on until her Scottish National Party (SNP) had completed the process of finding a successor.
“In my head and in my heart, I know that time is now, that is right for me, for my party and my country,” she said at a news conference in Edinburgh.
Sturgeon became SNP leader in the wake of its 2014 independence referendum when the country voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain as part of the United Kingdom, leading to the departure of predecessor Alex Salmond.
She led her party to a resounding success at the 2015 U.K. election, winning 56 of 59 seats in Scotland and establishing it as Britain’s third-largest party, before she retained control over the devolved parliament at more recent elections.
But she has recently become embroiled in a row with the London government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and some of her own voters, over a gender recognition bill, and London has blocked the path to another independence referendum.
Sturgeon said she had wrestled with the decision with “oscillating levels of intensity” for several weeks and denied that it was a “reaction to short-term pressures” and battles inherent in the position.
Time for a new voice: Sturgeon
Sturgeon said the weight of making decisions that affected the lives and freedoms of citizens during the pandemic had taken a cumulative toll, citing an “intensity and brutality” to reactions to government policy in the age of social media.
“I am a human being as well as a politician,” she said.
Sturgeon said it was time for voters to hear a new voice.
“Too often I see issues presented, and as a result viewed, not on their own merits, but through the prism of what I think and what people think about me,” she said.
The SNP suffered a blow in November when the United Kingdom’s top court ruled that her Scottish government could not hold a second referendum without approval from the British Parliament.
Successive Conservative governments in London have said the 2014 referendum was a once-in-a-generation decision and could not be repeated so soon.
Sturgeon said in response that she would turn the next British general election into a de facto referendum to ramp up pressure on London to grant another vote.
“There’s almost a vacuum that comes after her, because there’s nobody now who is a clear and obvious successor to take over,” Anthony Wells, head of European Political and Social Research at YouGov UK, told Reuters.
He said Sturgeon’s strength at the top of the party had contained internal disputes over the way forward: “Without somebody clearly with her hand on the tiller, I guess it will be a bit chaotic.”
Battles on independence, transgender policy
According to polls, support for independence rose above 50 per cent in the wake of the Supreme Court defeat but has since slipped back.
Sturgeon said Wednesday she believed in the fight for independence with “every fibre of my being” and vowed to continue to champion that cause.
In recent months, Sturgeon became embroiled in a row over transgender policies after Scotland passed a bill to make it easier for people to change their legal gender.
Sunak’s government said it would block the bill because it could impact the law in the rest of the United Kingdom.
My thanks go to <a href=”https://twitter.com/NicolaSturgeon?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@NicolaSturgeon</a> for her long-standing service. I wish her all the best for her next steps.<br><br>We will continue to work closely with the <a href=”https://twitter.com/scotgov?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@scotgov</a> on our joint efforts to deliver for people across Scotland.
The decision by Sturgeon caught political observers by surprise, despite the ongoing controversy over the gender recognition measure.
The row turned the spotlight on the treatment of transgender people in Scottish prisons, with Sturgeon facing difficult questions after a transgender woman convicted of rape was initially placed in an all-female prison.
Scotland has since said it would review the management of transgender prisoners.