Nicola Sturgeon is resigning as Scotland’s first minister in a move that stunned her pro-independence party and fired the starting pistol on the race to succeed her.
The Scottish National Party leader — who has led the party and the country’s devolved government since 2014 — made the shock announcement at a hastily arranged press conference Wednesday from her official residence in Edinburgh.
Citing the personal toll of the job and a desire to “free” her party to pick its own Scottish independence strategy, Sturgeon, 52, said it had been a “privilege beyond measure” to serve as first minister.
But she confirmed she had asked the SNP’s top brass to “begin the process of electing a new party leader” in the coming days.
Sturgeon will, she said, “remain in office until my successor is elected,” but made clear she believed it was now the “right time” to move on.
“I am proud to stand here as the first female and longest serving incumbent of this office, and I’m very proud of what has been achieved in the years I’ve been in Bute House,” she said.
“However, since my very first moments in the job, I have believed that part of serving well would be to know almost instinctively when the time is right to make way for someone else. And when that time came to have the courage to do so, even if — to many across the country and in my party — it might feel too soon.”
Sturgeon — a vocal opponent of Brexit who has argued that Britain’s departure from the bloc warrants another Scottish independence referendum — is the longest-serving Scottish first minister, and has led her party to successive election victories there.
She remains one of the most popular figures in the drive to separate Scotland from the United Kingdom through a fresh referendum.
But the SNP leader has been embroiled in a row with the British government in recent weeks, after it blocked a bill aimed at reforming Scotland’s gender self-declaration laws. She has also been under fire over the housing of a convicted rapist, who changed their gender, in a women’s prison. That decision was later reversed.
Sturgeon denied that her exit was “a reaction to short-term pressures,” saying her near three decades in frontline politics had toughened her to “navigating choppy waters.”
Instead, she said, the move had come from “a deeper and longer term assessment” of her ability to give the top job its all, as well as a desire not to bind the party’s hands as it mulls its strategy for securing another independence referendum.
Personal and political
Sturgeon has long argued for the next Westminster general election to be used as a de facto referendum on Scottish independence, but with a crucial SNP conference aimed at hashing out an independence strategy slated for next month, the outgoing first minister said she wanted her party to be free “to choose the path that it believes to be the right one, without worrying about the perceived implications for my leadership.”
While Sturgeon stressed she was “not expecting violins,” she also cited the toll of leading Scotland through the COVID-19 pandemic, and said a first minister “is never off duty.”
Sturgeon pointed out that she had been a member of the Scottish Parliament since the age of 29, and in government since the age of 37.
“I’ve literally done this in one capacity or another for all of my life,” she said. “I’ve been Nicola Sturgeon the politician for all of my life.” Now, she said, she could perhaps spend “a little bit of time on Nicola Sturgeon, the human being.”
An SNP official said the news had “completely taken aback” staff at the party’s headquarters — and predicted “the beginning of a bitter civil war and factional splits on the next level” in the wake of her exit.
“This is just a completely wild situation,” they said ahead of the conference. “Literally nobody at HQ, even at senior levels — apart from [Sturgeon’s husband and SNP Chief Executive] Peter Murrell, I presume – was briefed.”
The SNP’s ruling national executive committee will set out a leadership election timetable “over the coming days,” Sturgeon said.
Sturgeon succeeded Alex Salmond as first minister in 2014 after the SNP failed in its first referendum bid to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.
The pair later fell out spectacularly as Salmond faced sexual assault charges, of which he was cleared after a two-week trial.
This developing story is being updated. Emilio Casalicchio and Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.