Farewell to a First Minister

This morning, in a public reception room at Bute House, Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister announced that she is stepping down. In a characteristically polished speech, bereft of the high emotion that sometimes accompanies such occasions, Nicola Sturgeon explained that after fifteen years in ministerial office, she simply doesn’t have enough left in the tank: “Giving absolutely everything is the only way you can do this job, but it can only go on for so long”.

Ms Sturgeon told watching journalists, “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. In my head and my heart, I know that time is now. That it is right for me, for my party, and for the country.”

Commentators will be quick to link today’s announcement to recent controversies. Has Sturgeon been pushed out amid party infighting over her government’s contentious gender law? She was a leading, and dogged, proponent of it, and it is deeply unpopular with voters. Ms Sturgeon denies this. “This decision is not a reaction to short term measures”, she said. “This decision comes from a deeper and longer-term assessment. I have been wrestling with it for some time”.

Like many leaders before her, her resignation speech focused on the great burden of political leadership. She noted that the high-profile nature of her role means even “ordinary stuff like going for a coffee with friends or going for a walk by yourself becomes difficult”. “It takes a toll on you and on those around you.” The toll on her appears to have reached the stage where she feels unable to continue at the helm whilst giving what she thinks is required – “every ounce of energy”.

The First Minister acknowledged that her length of service as a leader in the SNP has welded her own personality and opinions to the party – something she sees as unhelpful. She feels that political issues are often “presented through the prism of what I think and what people think about me”. On independence, she suggested that party faithful would follow her lead on the best way forward, but she thinks: “The cause of independence is so much bigger than any one individual”.

One aspect of the outgoing First Minister’s speech that will be examined in days to come was her criticism of political debate in Scotland. Ms Sturgeon stressed the need to “de-polarise public debate” and “reset the tone and the tenor of our discourse”. Many will agree with these statements – I certainly do. But Scots will also see the, at times, highly controversial policy agenda of her government as a driver of division and anger in politics, and wider culture.

Anger about that policy agenda reached fever pitch in the last year as many people in Scotland expressed opposition to the government’s gender bill. The policy, which would allow self-declaration of legal sex for anyone aged 16 and above in Scotland, is seen as a threat to the rights and safety of women and children. Sturgeon is accused of refusing to listen to critics’ concerns. Some will never forgive her for that. Especially if a challenge to the legislation by UK Ministers fails.

A fuller assessment of Nicola Sturgeon’s years in office will be forthcoming. Book deals and articles will abound. The commentariat will rage, and praise. She has certainly been a polarising figure. All political leaders are. I think even her detractors will recognise her talents though – her shrewd and lawyerly performances at Holyrood and in the media have often surpassed those of other statesmen and women in UK politics. She’s led the SNP to eight election victories. Some will feel sad at her departure, others most-certainly will not.

As someone who has opposed some of the most controversial policies of Nicola Sturgeon’s government over the years, you may expect me to be gleeful today. I’m not. Though I disagree profoundly with Ms Sturgeon on things like the GRR Bill and the Hate Crime Act, which I hope will not come into force, I think esteeming our democratic process ought to take precedence on days like today. Respect for political office, and public service, is very important.

So, I thank Nicola Sturgeon for her many years of costly political service on behalf of Scotland. I wish her well, and can assure her that Christians will continue to pray for her. I also join her in calling for a better politics in Scotland. Integrity, fairness, respect and generosity to others needs to be at the heart of our politics and public life. Civil liberties need to be shored up. And policy-making needs to be evidence-led, and in step with public priorities. I hope the next First Minister of Scotland will agree.

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