The fall of Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister in the U.K.’s system of “devolved” government, after an unbroken succession of election victories since 2007, is a highly consequential one. It postpones the Scottish National Party’s (and her) driving purpose of independence for Scotland, maybe indefinitely. Yet at the same time it’s an oddly anti-climactic event too.
One moment Sturgeon was the dominant figure in Scottish politics, the noisy center of a storm of massive scandals, controversies, and looming battles; the next moment, hey presto, she had gone, retired because of "exhaustion," and the expected grand fireworks display of fizzing crises fizzled out without even a bang.
This sense of anti-climax is explained in part by the fact that under the leadership of Sturgeon and her patron and predecessor, Alex Salmond, who first took the S.N.P. into office as First Minister in 2007, Scottish politics has been a high-voltage, high-energy activity, a crusade to break up the U.K. and to restore the Scottish sovereignty lost at the start of the modern age.
Not only that, but Scottish nationalism differed from most other separatist movements in Europe by virtue of being very left-wing. That leftist profile protected the S.N.P. from the usual slurs and suspicions (racism, etc.) directed at other nationalisms, made it attractive to “liberal” opinion in the metropolitan media in London, and helped it to replace the Scottish Labour Party as the main opponent of Tory governments at Westminster.
Salmond and Sturgeon, both energetic campaigners, formed a political partnership that, eight years after the Scottish Parliament was born, enabled their party to enter a series of minority, majority, and coalition governments lasting from 2007 to the present day.
That partisan identity smoothed over several problems that otherwise might have crippled the S.N.P. As a nationalist party, it naturally wanted to break away from the control of the Westminster parliament; as a left-wing party, however, it also wanted to remain in the anti-nationalist European Union. That led directly to another difficulty: the E.U. was intent on centralizing power in the Brussels institutions while the Westminster Parliament was willing to cede powers to the Scottish Parliament. Going from Westminster to Brussels would have been jumping from the frying pan into the fire. It’s hard to see how an independent Scotland within the E.U. would have easily accepted the gradual loss of its bright new sovereignty to the creeping ambitions of Brussels—see Hungary and Poland passim.
Even while Britain was in the E.U., the financial and economic risks for Scotland of leaving the U.K. were formidable. They couldn't be explained away, and largely account for why the S.N.P. lost the 2014 referendum on independence by 55 to 45 percent. But when the entire U.K. voted to leave the E.U. only a year later, the S.N.P.’s problems became even more severe. Scotland was now outside the E.U.—against its will, argued the Scot-Nats, because most Scots had voted Remain, but outside nonetheless. Moreover, the E.U. was not prepared to let Scotland remain (or re-enter) when the U.K. left because other E.U. member-states like Spain had separatist provinces they wished to discourage by making Scotland an example of the folly of separatism. An independent Scotland would be out in the cold, without the protection of any financial sugar-daddy, let alone one as indulgent as London.
Sturgeon at this point might have decided to postpone her ambitions for an independent Scotland, concentrate on establishing a record of successful government for her party, seek to widen the areas of independent Scottish authority within the devolution settlement, and wait for better days. Instead, she decided on two other very different political strategies. First, she would maneuver to hold a second referendum on independence as soon as possible even if she had to do so unconstitutionally, maybe illegally, and against the sovereign authority of the U.K. Parliament. Second, she would widen the differences between the political cultures of Scotland and the rest of the U.K., above all the political culture of England (which in Scottish mythology is irredeemably Tory).
The first strategy went nowhere. It forced her to claim that she could treat the next U.K. general election as a de facto referendum on independence even though the S.N.P. will struggle to gain the substantial victory that alone would give even a semblance of legitimacy to her argument. Recently, she has been visibly flailing on that front. In short, she subordinated the good government of Scotland to her obsession with forcing through an independence referendum only nine years after she lost the first “once-in-a-generation” referendum.
Lady Macbeth got tired, too.
As for her second strategy—doubling down on Scotland’s leftism—that worked well until recently but it has now run into an unforeseen difficulty. As in most Anglosphere nations, the Left in Scotland has gone Woke, and the more it’s moved in that direction, the more it has alienated ordinary people. A younger and shrewder Sturgeon would have noticed this trend and adapted to it. Whether from philosophical conviction, mistaken electoral calculations, or the tiredness she admitted when resigning, Sturgeon doubled down on Wokeness in the following decisions on policy and legislation:
- In 2021 her government forced through a "Hate Crimes and Public Order" bill against widespread public opposition. It greatly expanded the definition of hate crimes, even criminalizing statements made in the home around a dinner table.
- She used the authority of government to conduct a vendetta against her former patron and ally, Salmond, who had left the S.N.P. and started a rival nationalist party.
- Only a fortnight before she exited the scene, Sturgeon released the latest instalment of her energy-cum-environmental policy. It doubled down—apparently her specialty when it comes to unforced errors—on the U.K. drive to Net-Zero on the grounds that since we have hugely increased the price of energy by restricting oil-and-gas production, it will be cheaper to use other forms of energy (however expensive they may then be). Or in her own words, the strategy “shows that as we reduce Scotland’s dependence on oil and gas – both as generators and consumers – there is a huge environmental and economic opportunity to be seized.” To be fair to Sturgeon, that is the logic of the international community. Net-Zero is unsustainable, but sadly that light will only go on when the lights go out.
- Against rare opposition within the S.N.P., her government forced legislation through Parliament that enabled people to determine their "gender identity" without medical or official approval while still being binding on others, including institutions such as prisons. When a biologically male rapist "transitioned" to female, public outrage forced Sturgeon to accept that “the rapist” should not be placed in a woman’s prison even if that violated the semi-official mantra that “transwomen are woman.” Unusually for her, she floundered hopelessly in trying to justify or even explain her government’s policy which is rapidly being abandoned even as it still remains law in theory.
In the last few weeks, Sturgeon’s errors were thundering down the track towards her. Wisely, she stepped aside into the shadows—the first political leader to lose power because she argued that rapists can be women and that shortages cause prices to fall.