LONDON — The search to fill the soon-to-be empty shoes at the apex of Scottish politics was underway Thursday following the surprise announcement by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that she was stepping down after eight years in power.
Sturgeon’s shock departure has left her Scottish National Party (SNP) reeling and prompted big questions for Scotland, namely over what’s next for her cherished independence movement and who will push that forward.
The SNP is Scotland’s largest, most popular party, and it’s hard to see it losing its dominance anytime soon, but the departure of Sturgeon, who is synonymous with the independence cause and whose stature in Scotland is such that she’s known on a first-name basis, is a hugely significant moment.
Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, flag-bearer for independence, to resign
There is no obvious successor, but the next leader will be searching for a strategy to deliver the party’s goal of independence where Sturgeon failed. During her time in office, she repeatedly called for a rerun of the 2014 referendum on independence (where Scotland voted 55 percent to 45 percent to stay in the union), and she was repeatedly turned down by the British government that claimed it was a once-in-a-generation exercise.
Last year, she took the case to the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, which ruled that the Scottish Parliament didn’t have a right to unilaterally hold a legally binding referendum. She then said that her “Plan B” strategy was to fight the next Britain-wide election as a “de facto” referendum on independence, something that even allies in her party have criticized.
With her departure — which could be seen as a tacit acknowledgment of the failure of that approach — the state of the independence cause is unclear. While the Scottish Parliament has a pro-independence majority, voters are still very split.
“Sturgeon’s departure is a tacit admission independence isn’t happening any time soon, not in the next two, three, even four years,” said Alex Massie, Scottish editor for the Spectator magazine. “If it was likely, if there was a feasible road to it, you’d expect someone who has devoted their entire life campaigning for independence to want to be there for the moment of its final arrival.”
U.K. Supreme Court rules that Scotland cannot hold independence referendum
This doesn’t mean that the independence movement will simply melt away without its star leader. Longevity may yet win the independence cause. While demographics don’t equal destiny, the long-term trends appear to be in the SNP’s favor. Polling shows that 60 to 65 percent of those under the age of 40 are in favor of Scotland leaving the U.K.
“If you look at things on a 10-to-20-year time scale, the SNP remain in an advantageous position, but if you look at things over the next couple of years, it’s much more difficult,” Massie said. “People in the party are asking: Where do we go from here? There isn’t any obvious answer beyond waiting.”
Meanwhile, rival parties in Scotland will be hoping to capitalize on the change at the top of the SNP. In particular, the opposition Labour Party, which is riding high in national polls, will hope to reverse its decade-long decline in Scotland and claw back some seats at the next election.
For now, Sturgeon, 52, will keep the helm of government, but her party will meet on Thursday evening to draw up a timetable and rules for the race.
Those tipped for the top job include Kate Forbes, 32, the Scottish finance secretary who is on maternity leave. Angus Robertson, 53, a senior figure in the party, is another name bandied about and the former leader of the SNP’s parliamentary delegation in British Parliament. John Swinney, a former leader of the party and Sturgeon’s deputy, is also thought to be a contender, as is Humza Yousaf, 37, who has held several top jobs in the Scottish government and is health secretary.
On social media, Sturgeon tagged the Scottish tennis player Andy Murray and a tank driver called Gary, both of whom quipped that they were eyeing her job. “My decision not to endorse a successor is coming under strain,” she wrote.
Whoever takes over will face big challenges leading the country, not just on the party’s existential issue of independence, but also on domestic issues like health and education, where Sturgeon’s record is patchy.