Nicola Sturgeon and Fleet Street

Nicola Sturgeon resigns as Scottish first minister – inside her rise and fall

Nicola Sturgeon has formally announced her resignation as Scottish First Minister after over well over a decade spent at the apex of Scottish politics, as both deputy first minister and first minister.

The announcement came in a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh. Initially, there were no reports that Sturgeon was going to quit. 

Ms Sturgeon said that she had believed since first taking the role that “part of serving well” is knowing when the time is right to stand down.

Speaking at Bute House in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said: “In my head and in my heart I know that time is now, that it is right for me, for my party and for the country. And so today I am announcing my intention to step down as First Minister and leader of my party”.

She said she could not “pin point” the exact moment she decided to quit but said it had “started to crystalise” a couple of weeks ago.

“I have been thinking about it, I used the term in my remarks ‘with oscillating intensity’, and that is true. There are some days I haven’t thought about it at all because there is too much else and then other times it has weighed more heavily”, the first minister added.

The move comes following a recent debate over the incarceration of trans prisoners, and broader disagreements about the Scottish government’s policy of gender self-identification.

Ms Sturgeon has also been buffeted by broader issues, such as the UK Supreme Court’s rejection of an SNP bid to hold a new independence referendum. In the aftermath, the first minister said the party would fight the next general election as a de facto referendum, a tactic which has proved controversial among some in her party. 

Among those reacting to Ms Sturgeon’s resignation announcement are prime minister Rishi Sunak who thanked the first minister for her “long-standing service” on Twitter.

Former prime minister Theresa May had some advice for Ms Sturgeon, tweeting that “there is plenty of scope to contribute from the backbenches”.

Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, said in a statement that Nicola Sturgeon will be “sorely missed”. He added: “Nicola Sturgeon has been the outstanding political leader across Scotland, and indeed the rest of the UK, for a generation.

“As SNP leader, she has taken support for independence to record levels and won every national election, by margins other parties could only wish for”.

Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, described Nicola Sturgeon as a “formidable politician”, but said her resignation “presents a welcome opportunity” for the SNP to “drop its divisive obsession with independence”.

Sturgeon’s rise

Sturgeon joined the SNP at age 16 and she immediately threw herself into party activities. In 1990, the young activist met Alex Salmond and supported his leadership campaign of that year.

Referring to that time, Salmond has said that Sturgeon was “a precocious teenage prodigy as part of my campaign, bubbling with vitality and talent”. Sturgeon has since related that Salmond believed in her long before she believed in herself. Salmond was apparently “certain” that one day Sturgeon would lead the SNP.

At only 21, Sturgeon became Scotland’s youngest parliamentary candidate, and ultimately unsuccessful. Undeterred by this, and a subsequent defeat at the 1997 election, Sturgeon was selected to contest a seat at Holyrood – the newly formed Scottish Parliament – for the SNP in 1999.

Following the resignation of then SNP leader John Swinney in 2004, Nicola Sturgeon announced her candidacy for the vacated position. However, upon Salmond revealing that he planned to stand for the leadership once more (he previously held the role from 1990-2000); Sturgeon withdrew.

Salmond would go on to win the leadership, and Sturgeon became his Deputy. Because Salmond did not have a seat in Scotland at Holyrood at this time, Sturgeon became the SNP’s Holyrood Leader

In her capacity as ‘Holyrood leader’, Sturgeon changed the discourse from SNP division to SNP aspiration. And this aspiration soon turned to results. The 2007 Holyrood election saw the SNP become Holyrood’s largest party. With Salmond now an MSP and hence First Minister, Sturgeon became Deputy First Minister.

Alongside this role, Sturgeon balanced the responsibilities of being Scottish Health Secretary, for which she earned praise for her handling of the 2007 Swine Flu pandemic.

The Sturgeon – Salmond duopoly spearheaded the 2011 Holyrood SNP campaign which for the first time gave the SNP an outright majority at Holyrood. From here, a first Scottish Independence Referendum looked inevitable and it was announced for 2014.

Ms Sturgeon became first minister following the “No” result in the 2014 Scottish Referendum, which saw Alex Salmond resign from the post.

Sturgeon galvanised her party amidst the fallout of the 2014 referendum and the disappointment with the result. The party’s enthusiasm soon reappeared and carried over to the 2015 British General election, as the party demolished Labour’s grip North of the border, winning 56 out of the 59 seats on offer.

The election campaign was run along very personal lines; Sturgeon was seen as the SNP’s greatest asset.

In Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon was initially careful not to push for a second referendum, but following the 2016 Brexit vote, her publicly stated interest in another referendum grew. Scotland voted overwhelming in favour of remaining in the European Union.

Sturgeon forged a cold relationship with then-British prime minister, Theresa May, who strongly pushed back at the notion of an “indyref2” for Scotland. The 2017 election saw the SNP numbers at Westminster reduced to 35, but this quickly increased to 48 in the 2019 election.

During 2020 and 2021, Nicola Sturgeon oversaw the Scottish government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, regularly appearing at televised news conferences. Under Sturgeon, the Scottish government took a different approach, notably in terms of coronavirus restrictions, to those being followed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government in England.

In 2021, Sturgeon led the Scottish National Party into the Scottish Parliament’s elections, emerging victorious with the SNP gaining 64 seats, just one short of the number needed for an overall majority. Supported by the Scottish Green Party, Sturgeon returned as First Minister.