As the First Minister of Scotland steps down, we look back at her legacy
Nicola Sturgeon, an undisputed titan of Scottish politics, has resigned as First Minister of Scotland. During her eight years as the leader of the SNP, she has secured three landslide victories, enjoyed consistently high approval ratings, and brought a sense of competence and compassion to public life in Scotland. While she has her fair share of detractors – as she herself ruefully acknowledged in a speech earlier today – she will be sorely missed by many.
In recent months, Sturgeon has faced a ferocious backlash for supporting Scotland’s gender recognition reform bill, which passed in December before being blocked by Rishi Sunak the following month. But during today’s speech, she made clear that she was not resigning as a “reaction to short-term pressure”. Instead, she insisted, her resignation comes after a “deeper and longer-term assessment”, which led her to realise that staying in the role was no longer the right thing either for herself or the country. Explaining her decision, she alluded to the abuse that she has received; the invasions of her privacy; and the long-term psychological impact of leading Scotland through the COVID pandemic, which was the hardest part of her career. “I’m not expecting violins here,” she said, “but I am a human being as well as a politician.” Much of what she said echoes the recent resignation speech of Jacinda Atern, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand. This could just be two people with a similar jobs finding it difficult for the same reasons, but it might also suggest that women still face a particularly difficult time in the public sphere.
While Sturgeon rejected the narrative that her resignation was related to the GRA reform, many trans people in Scotland and their supporters are nonetheless dismayed by the news – apart from anything, the most transphobic forces in Scottish politics are certain to view it as vindication. “I think in the national context it just feels like part of a revanchist move against LGBTQ+ equality,” Patricia, a young trans woman who is active in Scottish politics, tells Dazed. “In my view, she mishandled the GRA reform and focused too much on finding ‘consensus’ with anti-trans ideologues. However, I think her resignation is being taken as a victory for the anti-trans movement, whatever the reasons behind it, so it still feels like bad news, and a grim portent for equalities law in Scotland.”
It’s true that Sturgeon could and should have done more to shut down transphobia within the ranks of the SNP. Her failure to do so led to a number of young activists quitting the party in 2021, which she said “grieved her deeply” (to her credit, she also doubled down on her commitment to making the party a “safe, tolerant and welcoming place” for trans people.) You could also argue that there were more pressing issues facing Scottish trans people than the GRA reform, and that increasing funding for Gender Identity Clinics (which are so under-resourced that trans people often have to wait years for access care) would have been a more meaningful intervention. Changing the law was the cheap option, in the most literal sense.
But even if that’s all true, this is still a troubling day for Scottish politics. “Despite being no fan of the neoliberal SNP, I am saddened by news of Sturgeon’s resignation,” says Emma, a feminist academic based in Glasgow. “I worry about the climate of intensifying transphobia and reactionary Scottish social politics that undoubtedly played a role in her resignation, and how this may worsen under future SNP leadership. Sturgeon valiantly stood her ground on these issues and I’m not optimistic that the party she leaves behind will do the same.”
Aside from the GRA reform, the legacy Sturgeon leaves behind is somewhat mixed. She secured three general election victories for the SNP and, under her tenure, the party has succeeded in introducing some progressive legislation: doubling the allowance of free childcare, expanding free school meals, introducing an Adult Disability Payment aimed to offset the worst effects of UK welfare policy, nationalising Scotland’s rail service, and increasing payments to children living in poverty. Even if these policies never quite managed to solve the problems they were intended to address, they can’t be discounted entirely.
In 2017, the party also introduced a policy that provides every new parent in the country with a ‘Baby Box’, containing essential items like clothes, toys, towels, blankets, a thermometer, and a poem by Jackie Kay (Scotland's poet laureate). Plenty of critics mocked this at the time, arguing that it was a frivolous and indulgent waste of money – but when I recently spoke with some friends of mine who had just given birth, they said they truly appreciated it (and that the poem made them cry.) More recently, Sturgeon introduced a rent freeze and eviction ban, and although this didn’t go far enough to fix the underlying problems of housing in Scotland (what’s really needed is more council houses) and was later downgraded to a ‘rent cap‘, these measures did provide some respite to Scottish renters during the cost-of-living crisis.
‘I worry about the climate of intensifying transphobia and reactionary Scottish social politics that undoubtedly played a role in her resignation, and how this may worsen under future SNP leadership’
At the same time, we don’t have to eulogise Sturgeon as the perfect politician. The SNP is, and always has been, a neoliberal party that supports low corporate taxes and financial deregulation. Sturgeon has described herself as a “fangirl” of Hillary Clinton, which is a solid indication she’s no socialist rabble-rouser. The party has also introduced devastating cuts to services and public sector jobs.
You can argue – fairly – that these decisions are a result of its hands being tied by Westminster, but when you look at its plans for a post-independence Scotland, there’s little reason to think it would govern all that differently. The party’s Sustainable Growth Commission, published in 2018, recommended that an independent Scotland would implement “deficit reduction” and run its economy in regulatory alignment with the City of London, measures which would all but guarantee austerity. Even now, the party opposes a windfall tax in oil and gas profits as a way to offset energy costs – it’s not for nothing that the SNP are often described as ‘Tartan Tories.’ Whether or not the blame ultimately lies with Westminster, the party under Sturgeon’s tenure has failed to fully implement a number of the progressive policies that it once promised, most notably land reform. “Her reign has produced many policies but few achievements: beyond the obvious electoral success, she has little to her name that can be said to have emerged from a battle against the odds,” writes the Scottish historian Rory Scothorne.
A common left-wing criticism of Sturgeon suggests that she has hidden behind a veneer of progressive rhetoric, while failing to improve people’s lives in a meaningful way. There’s some truth to this idea but at the same time, rhetoric isn’t an entirely irrelevant factor when it comes to assessing a politician. It is to Sturgeon’s lasting credit that she never scapegoated migrants, unemployed people or the trans community. Unlike both party leaders south of the border, she never threw marginalised groups under the bus for short-term political gain.
Maybe her support for trans rights could have been executed better, but it counts for something that she held firm, even in the face of a hostile media and a barrage of personal attacks. I recently interviewed a trans woman living in the US who told me that she wished they had someone like Nicola Sturgeon in the mainstream liberal establishment, someone who would put their neck on the line for trans people and push for change, rather than only ever adopting a defensive stance. I never thought the GRA reform was radical (and still don’t), but hearing that from an outside perspective made me appreciate that we were lucky to have her.
Maybe I’ve been blinded by aesthetics and media performance, but I find it difficult to be objective about Nicola Sturgeon, because I have always liked her a lot – she has been a warm, affable and vaguely reassuring presence throughout the entirety of my adult life, as she has been for many other young Scottish people. However much I disagree with her, she seems like a fundamentally decent person. Today, that quality has become even rarer in British politics.
Join Dazed Club and be part of our world! You get exclusive access to events, parties, festivals and our editors, as well as a free subscription to Dazed for a year. Join for £5/month today.