So it finally happened. Nicola Sturgeon, the one-time “Angel of the North”, has announced that she will be resigning as First Minister of Scotland, just as soon as the Scottish National Party can choose her successor.
Excluding perhaps Rishi Sunak, it’s difficult to think of an individual whose departure from front-line politics would be a bigger story, or which could have a larger impact both on the medium-term political scene or, indeed, the long-term future of the United Kingdom.
In her resignation speech this morning, the First Minister explained that she had been grappling with this decision, “albeit with oscillating levels of intensity”, for weeks, and explained it thus:
“Is carrying on right for me, and more importantly is me carrying on right for my party, for my country, and for the independence cause I have dedicated my life to?”
One suspects that these two considerations were, in reality, deeply entwined.
The human cost of being a politician at the top of the game are very real, and that can sometimes be hard for people on the side lines, sniping about their expenses or abusing them on Twitter, to remember. When Sturgeon talked about how her nephews and nieces have grown up during her time in office, or how the funeral of a friend gave her new perspective, it was easy to see why she might choose a different life.
Yet people do endure them. Sturgeon has endured them – in May last year she became the longest-serving first minister since the advent of the Scottish Parliament.
To do that, you need to believe the sacrifices are worth it. For Sturgeon, a lifelong nationalist, the great promise was being the woman who did what her predecessor could not: lead Scotland into independence.
Yet despite Brexit, despite the UK Internal Market Act, despite Boris Johnson, despite Liz Truss, despite the Supreme Court, despite Alister Jack, the polling on independence has refused to move.
Despite, despite, despite. Following Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling show that Scots “would rather have a law made in Westminster that they agreed with than a law made in Scotland that they disagreed with”, it’s been a bad week for received wisdom where the constitutional battle is concerned.
This morning, Sturgeon said: “I am confident that I can and would lead the SNP to further electoral success.” Assuming she’s right about that, it’s clear she no longer thinks it’s worth the trouble to do so. The polling on independence is probably the best explanation for that.
But what if she isn’t? After all, as one journalist pointed out today, just three weeks ago Sturgeon said she had plenty “left in the tank”. Only this weekend, the Sunday Telegraph reported her plan to challenge Alister Jack’s veto of her controversial gender legislation in court and reframe the whole thing as a matter of democracy.
This suggests a more immediate explanation is in order. And the first is simply that she believes the SNP’s extraordinary run of defying political gravity might end, and sooner than many supposed. Why might that happen?
Perhaps she doesn’t want to navigate the minefield she has laid for herself on independence. In her speech, she said that the SNP would need to make a collective decision on her proposal – widely considered a massive downside risk with little to gain – to treat the next general election as a so-called proxy vote on separation. Stepping down now avoids the need to take ownership of it.
Her domestic record is another reason. Beneath the rosy gloss she tried to put on her record, there is another Scotland. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, the extent of the rot has not shown up yet on the Nationalists’ performance. But it was there, lurking in the attic, accruing the scars of failure after failure.
At the press conference after the First Minister’s speech, journalists tried to lift the tarpaulin on it: drug deaths at a “catastrophic” level; NHS performance poor; an attainment gap that hasn’t closed despite promise after promise from SNP ministers.
To which might be added much more: I have sometimes dedicated an entire Red, White, and Blue column just to updating readers on the Nationalists’ latest domestic policy disasters.
For example, there’s the ongoing scandal of the Ferguson Marine ferry contract, which saw Sturgeon launch an unfinished ship, has left island communities dependent on failing vessels, and led to allegations that the award was politically motivated.
And yet more. An allegation the Scottish Government breached state aid rules. A freedom-of-information clash over its legal advice on a second referendum. The humiliating court defeat at the hands of Alex Salmond over its handling of allegations against him, and the Holyrood inquiry which at one point looked like it might bring Sturgeon down.
Yet all of this has been true for ages. The simple fact is that by uniting the pro-independence electorate behind her (and gaming Holyrood’s supposedly-proportional system with the Greens), it hasn’t mattered. So why might it suddenly matter now?
Perhaps there is scandal looming closer to home.
In my most recent column, I updated reader on the row over a £107,000 loan the SNP received from Peter Murrell, its Chief Executive. According to media reports, it “broke reporting rules on three separate occasions”. Sturgeon has claimed not to remember when she heard about it, which is convenient but not especially plausible, either as leader of the recipient party or, er, wife of the donor.
And as I covered back in December, that story coincides with another on the SNP’s finances: a police investigation into whether the Nationalists committed fraud by raising £600,000 for a referendum fighting fund and then spending it elsewhere. Prior to that, several members of the Party’s finance and audit committee resigned, claiming they had not been given adequate access to its finances – by Murrell.
(In her speech, Sturgeon claimed to oppose the concentration of too much power in the hands of any one person; splitting it with your spouse is a way around that, I guess.)
We won’t know for sure until the histories are written, including the surely-inevitable autobiography.
But despite the First Minister’s protestations that her decision “is not a reaction to short-term pressures”, it is deeply implausible that the current crisis did not tip the balance. As she says, she could probably lead the SNP to further victories if she wished to; just this weekend, she was plotting the next offensive.
Which means that Alister Jack, who defied received wisdom on devolution and wielded the Section 35 veto that derailed the Nationalist juggernaut, has likely earned his place of honour in the unionist pantheon. He went out on a limb – or, to stretch for a metaphor, up a beanstalk – and brought down a political giant.