Nicola Sturgeon Resigns: What to Know, and What’s Next for Scotland

The impending departure of Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s longest-serving first minister, who said on Wednesday that she would step down, has roiled the nation’s political establishment.

One of Britain’s most powerful politicians and a fierce champion for Scottish independence, Ms. Sturgeon cited exhaustion and said that she had become too polarizing a figure to continue after eight years in the role.

Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom, which also includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and though the British government is responsible for some policies across the union in areas like foreign policy and defense, it shares power with elected officials on the country level, including Ms. Sturgeon, who determine policies on health care and the economy, among other areas.

Though Ms. Sturgeon will remain in office until a successor is chosen, her resignation prompted shock at a time of division on issues including transgender rights and Scottish independence. Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Nicola Sturgeon?

The first woman to lead Scotland’s government, Ms. Sturgeon, 52, rose through her party ranks to become a force in Scottish politics.

Born in the coastal town of Irvine in 1970, she joined the then-marginal Scottish National Party at just 16. She later worked as a lawyer in Glasgow before being elected as a regional representative in 1999.

She served as the S. N. P.’s deputy first minister before becoming its leader in 2014 — months before the party won a landslide victory in Britain’s general election that propelled her into Scotland’s most prominent political position. Her inspiration to run for office came in part from Margaret Thatcher, she said, because she was opposed to Thatcher’s politics and horrified by the impact of her policies on Scotland, which led to surging unemployment.

Ms. Sturgeon is married to Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the S.N.P., whom she first met at a youth camp.

Ms. Sturgeon resigned as first minister at Bute House in Edinburgh on Wednesday.Credit…Pool photo by Jane Barlow

Why did she quit?

Ms. Sturgeon said the “brutality” of political life and exhaustion contributed to her decision to resign.

“I could go on for another few months, six months, a year maybe,” she said in a hastily arranged news conference on Wednesday in Edinburgh. “But I know that as time passed, I would have less and less energy to give to the job.”

“Giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job — it’s the only way to do it,” she added. “But in truth, that can only be done by anyone for so long.”

The announcement came as a surprise: Only last month, Ms. Sturgeon had told the BBC that she was not ready to step down, and in her resignation speech said she had wrestled with the decision for weeks.

It drew comparisons to the resignation of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand last month, who said being an effective leader required “a full tank plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges.”

Ms. Sturgeon called the party her extended family because she joined so early, at age 16. “Being your first minister has been the privilege of my life,” she said. But she said she had become too polarizing a figure to effectively lead in the country’s tense environment and that the job had taken a toll on her and her family.

“Maybe I want to spend a bit of time on Nicola Sturgeon, the person, the human being,” she said.

What is she known for?

A deft hand at navigating the power-sharing system of the United Kingdom, Ms. Sturgeon has been a dominant figure in the push for Scottish independence.

She has argued for independence as a way for Scotland to secure autonomy over its own decisions while engaging on the world stage, framing nationalism as outward looking rather than parochial.

As deputy minister, she led a failed referendum in 2014 for Scottish independence, and had announced new plans for another that would take place in October, but the Supreme Court ruled that would need the approval of Britain’s government.

Supporters of Scottish independence marched in Glasgow in 2021. Ms. Sturgeon had sought another referendum on the matter for this fall, but it was blocked by Britain’s Supreme Court.Credit…Robert Perry/EPA, via Shutterstock

She also emerged as a sure-footed and cautious leader during the coronavirus pandemic. She kept virus restrictions in place longer than England, challenging what she saw as a more lax approach. Scotland has reported fewer deaths and positive cases relative to its population compared with England. Ms. Sturgeon described leading the country through the pandemic as “by far the toughest thing I’ve done.”

More recently, Ms. Sturgeon had clashed with Britain’s government over transgender rights, after the Scottish Parliament passed legislation that would allow transgender people to have the gender with which they identify legally recognized without the need for a medical diagnosis. But the law was rejected by Britain’s government, which cited other equality laws. Her support for the legislation and for transgender rights has mired Ms. Sturgeon in a culture war, including a case over a convicted rapist who was briefly held in a women’s prison.

What happens next?

The leadership changeover will not be immediate, and Ms. Surgeon has said she will stay in the role for now.

But her announcement precipitated the formal submission of her resignation to King Charles III, after which the S.N.P. will have several weeks to elect another party leader to take the reins.

Who might succeed her?

There is no clear front-runner for the leadership role, but some names have emerged as potential successors as Scotland’s next first minister. They include:

  • Kate Forbes, 32, a former finance secretary who has often been tipped as next in line to Ms. Sturgeon. Elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016, Ms. Forbes is a fluent Gaelic speaker and a member of the Free Church of Scotland, an evangelical Presbyterian denomination.

  • Angus Robertson, 53, a senior party member who has served as a Scottish lawmaker in the British House of Commons. A former journalist, Mr. Robertson is currently a cabinet secretary for the Constitution, external affairs and culture.

  • John Swinney, 58, Ms. Sturgeon’s deputy, who was also appointed cabinet secretary for Covid Recovery in May 2021. He led the party from 2000 to 2005 when it did not have a majority of seats in Scottish Parliament.

  • Humza Yousaf, 37, cabinet secretary for health and social care. Elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011 at age 26, Mr. Yousaf, a practicing Muslim of South Asian descent, was the first person from a minority ethnic background to hold a cabinet position.

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