On February 15th, at the age of 52, Nicola Sturgeon announced that she was resigning as First Minister of Scotland and as the Head of the Scottish National Party. The SNP has governed Scotland since 2007, with Sturgeon as First Minister since 2014. According to the polls, the party holds favour with around 45% of the Scottish electorate. Following the 2014 Independence Referendum, Sturgeon ensured that the question of union or no union remained at the very forefront of Scottish politics. SNP membership figures soared as she entrenched her party’s views on the constitution. So, what brought down Nicola Sturgeon?
During the closing stages of her time in office, a number of difficulties have arisen that have worked to the detriment of her aims and reputation. In November 2022, London’s Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament could not unilaterally legislate for an independence referendum. The Scottish government were planning to hold an independence referendum on 19th October 2023. To take its place, Sturgeon bowed to pressure for a more radical strategy, and announced that the next general election would be a de facto referendum. The SNP would make it clear that they are campaigning on the single issue of independence, and therefore every vote for them is a vote in support of this specific cause. If the SNP were to receive more than 50% of the votes in Scotland, Sturgeon would use this as a referendum result and open negotiations with the UK government regarding Scotland’s exit from the UK, which has been controversial amongst other senior party members.
With issues over the SNP’s plans for Scottish independence as background noise, the last thing Sturgeon needed was a significant public blow to her reputation. It has been widely argued that the bill passed by the Scottish Parliament in December 2022, yet blocked by Westminster shortly after, was just that. Under the current system, there are a number of hoops trans people must jump through in order to change their legal gender: they must be 18 years of age, they must have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and they must prove that they have been living in their chosen gender for at least two years. Scotland’s reforms aimed to scrap the requirement for a formal gender dysphoria diagnosis, cut the waiting time from two years to six months, and lower the age limit to 16.
On December 22nd, the bill passed in Scottish Parliament, with the support of the other left-wing parties. Downing Street however, have the power to stop legislation from Scottish Parliament receiving Royal Assent, under the condition that it believes it will have an adverse impact on UK-wide law. In the 25 years since devolution, no British government had previously taken this step.
Cries of a slight on Scottish democracy came instantly from Sturgeon and the SNP. She argued that this block in legislation would a create a ‘very, very slippery slope indeed’, in regards to the idea that this could normalise and embolden the UK government to do the same in other areas. It is also clear that Sturgeon viewed the blocking of this particular act as an assault on the rights of trans people. She made accusations against the UK ministers of ‘using trans people as a political weapon’. Not alone in this opinion, Nancy Kelley, the Chief Executive of leading transgender rights charity Stonewall, accused the UK government of using trans people’s lives as political football.
On the other hand, women’s rights groups warned of the bill’s impact on access to women’s only spaces and services, leaving them potentially vulnerable to abuse by predatory male offenders. Harry Potter author JK Rowling was perhaps one of the bill’s most vocal critics, arguing that the legislation would ‘in effect mean that all a man needs to “become a women” is to say he’s one’. The UK government believed the legislation to be incompatible with the 2010 Equality Act, and feared it may lead to gender tourism.
Whilst Sturgeon fiercely fought this criticism, at home she was fighting an incident which suggested some hypocrisy. Isla Bryson, a trans women, was convicted in late January of raping two women in Scotland in 2016 and 2019, and was sent to Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling. Bryson’s incarceration at an all-women prison, given the crimes convicted, stirred outrage. Sturgeon refused four times to label Bryson as a man or a woman, despite her previously strong stance in favour of universal self-identification.
In spite of her hopes that Westminster’s block of a Scottish Parliament-approved bill may evoke support for her nationalist cries for independence, both her highly controversial proposed reforms, and her unfortunate handling of the Isla Bryson case saw her subject to high levels of criticism, even amongst other members of the SNP. Though the Gender Recognition Reform Bill alone was not responsible for Sturgeon’s resignation (‘that issue wasn’t the final straw’, she said at her press conference) the controversy has been argued to represent her tendencies towards dogmatism, tribalism and disregard for critics. Recent falling poll ratings for both her party and herself can perhaps be attributed to such representations of the negative side of Sturgeon’s independence messaging.
Sturgeon’s resignation leaves a power vacuum in the SNP that will need to find a worthy replacement to be able to finally finish Sturgeon’s fight for Scottish independence.