Analysis: Scotland's Sturgeon bows out at 'critical moment' for independence fight

  • Sturgeon steps down amid independence impasse
  • New leader could build support but also unleash frictions
  • Sturgeon was popular, if divisive, leader
  • Polls suggest independence support not conclusive
  • Successor will have to work to build recognition

LONDON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - With the cause of Scottish independence stalled by a Westminster government veto on a new referendum, nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday offered a new approach to break the deadlock - her resignation as first minister of Scotland.

But Sturgeon's departure also poses a huge risk to the cause. Her success over eight years of leading the Scottish National Party largely silenced critics of her strategy, and internal fault lines could be exposed by the vacuum once she's gone.

Having devoted her life to an independent Scotland, she said a new leader would be better placed to carry the movement forward, even though she leaves with no obvious successor in place.

While Sturgeon said she was "firmly of the view that there is now majority support for independence in Scotland", the polls suggest there is more work to do.

Emily Gray, managing director at Ipsos Scotland, told Reuters that sentiment remained split.

"Whoever Nicola Sturgeon's successor is, they will have significant work to do if they are to advance the cause of independence, and the route to a second referendum is currently far from clear," she said.


Sturgeon became the dominant figure of Scottish nationalism after the first attempt to leave the United Kingdom via a referendum in 2014 was defeated by 55% to 45%, resulting in the resignation of her predecessor Alex Salmond.

The Westminster government consented to that vote, but has resisted calls for another, saying the matter had been settled for a generation. The UK Supreme Court last year found that Scotland could not hold a referendum without the consent of the London parliament.

In the aftermath of the court ruling, some polls showed a majority support for independence, but that has recently come down back towards 2014 levels.

Anthony Wells, head of European Political and Social Research at YouGov UK, said Sturgeon had still been popular, and since the referendum, the polls had always been close enough to go either way in any new referendum.

"The SNP have looked like a very competent governing class," he told Reuters. "If that stops being the case, then that really could knock them back, and really could damage the cause of Scottish independence."

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon arrives for the news conference at Bute House where she announced she will stand down as first minister, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain February 15, 2023. Jane Barlow/Pool via REUTERS

At this "critical moment", Sturgeon said her preference was to use the next Westminster election as a "de facto" referendum, but it was not a perfect option, and she couldn't ask the party to follow her judgment while unsure if she would stay as leader.

Shortly after her resignation, friction among the nationalist movement spilled into the open, with her mentor turned political rival Salmond criticising her approach.

"The movement has been left with no clear strategy for independence," Salmond, who now leads the Alba party, said.

"The previously accepted referendum route has been closed and the de facto referendum/election proposal is now, at best, up in the air."


Sturgeon argued that new leadership for the SNP could lift support for independence, giving those who were opposed a fresh perspective from a new voice.

But a Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times showed that while Finance Secretary Kate Forbes led the field of possible replacements for Sturgeon, chosen by 7% of those polled, 69% responded "don't know".

"Voters see no clear successor to (Sturgeon) - it illustrates how dominant a figure she has been for so long," pollster Mark Diffley said. "She'll be a very tough act to follow."

While Sturgeon framed her resignation as a moment to bolster the cause of independence, it could instead be undermined if it unbottles all the mounting divisions within the party, including on independence and issues such as transgender rights.

"There was lots of dispute over the way forward that until now, has been kept under control to some point by the fact they've got a very strong, clear leader at the top," YouGov's Wells said.

John Kampfner, director of the UK in the World Initiative at Chatham House, said that Sturgeon's decision to resign "has ensured she has a very strong historical write up."

"But more importantly it throws into further doubt the question of whether Scotland will ever become independent at least in the next foreseeable period," he added.

Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Mike Harrison

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