Nicola Sturgeon: a career of ‘firsts’ (and contradictions)

There’s little that everyone agrees on in relation to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, but her resignation undoubtedly came as a great shock. Unless you happened to be peering into your magic 8 ball at just the right moment, the loss of Scotland’s longest serving First Minister appeared to have come out of the blue. A week prior to that fateful February 15th, I’d been listening to an episode of The News Agents podcast, when Sturgeon seemed re-energised by the political challenges of theshe had been facing, such as the Gender Reform Bill, etc. Maybe it’s her background in law, or tutelage under the disciplinarian ham-face that is Alex Salmond, but Sturgeon felt like the reliable, sensible big sister (or maybe firm aunt?!) to England’s Westminster’s slew of flimsy PMs. I confess, though, that I knew little about her, besides the Sturgeon Stan TikToks which appeared on my For You Page. But, by my ripe-old age of 20, Sturgeon was already an active member of the campaign for nuclear disarmament and a member of Young Scottish Nationalists. So, with such a long and significant political past, what is the thing that Sturgeon will be remembered for?  

Politicians tend to stick in the mind for all the wrong reasons.

Tony Blair is memorialised by some as a war criminal, Theresa May for the her catastrophic snap election and Brexit negotiations, David Cameron for his… pig incident (both literal and Brexit-related). It’s safe to say that politicians tend to stick in the mind for all the wrong reasons. Sturgeon herself cited Margaret Thatcher as “the motivation for my entire political career. I hated everything she stood for”. But Sturgeon is perceived by many as a progressive force in UK politics, admired long before she became First Minister in 2014. As Shadow Education Minister, she backed Labour’s efforts to repeal Section 28, a “shameful” piece of Thatcherite legislation which prohibited teachers from “promoting homosexuality”. As Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, Sturgeon scrapped prescription charges and introduced a minimum price on alcohol to combat Scotland’s problematic relationships with harmful substances. Thanks to her work, the Scottish Government sends out “Baby Boxes” to support mothers and children through the free provision of clothes, thermometers, and books. Despite these positive moves, Sturgeon remains just as contradictory in her actions as her English colleagues. She was criticised in January 2021 for rampant transphobia in her party, cut direct funding for drug and alcohol rehab programmes in 2016, and met last year with anti-abortion Congressman Robert Aderholt. It is her stance on women’s rights and the status of LGBTQ+ people which she has come under fire for most recently – and for good reason.  

Sturgeon is a self-described feminist, and has regularly called out other global leaders for their appalling comments and behaviours towards women. She tore into former Australian PM Tony Abbott for being “a misogynist, a sexist and a climate change denier”, in a moment reminiscent of Julia Gillard’s unforgettable 2012 ‘Misogyny Speech’. Now helpfully , and catchily , remixed into this iconic Gen-Z-friendly format, Gillard’s speech has come to signify the struggles of a generation of female politicians, and professionals more broadly. Sturgeon, on the other hand, has been labelled a “destroyer of women’s rights” by some conservative quarters, for her controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill. The act, which was blocked by the UK government less than a month before Sturgeon resigned, made it simpler for people to change their legal gender. Current UK legislation was condemned by the European Commission in 2020, due to the expense, intrusion and time required for trans people to be legally considered their chosen gender. The Scottish voting process heard from UN representatives and experts on gender-based violence and human rights, all with conflicting opinions. Shortly before Christmas 2022, the bill was passed with a significant majority, with praise from NGOs striving to make the trans people’s treatment more humane. This debate brings into question the idea of a singular public memory of Sturgeon, as whilst lauded by some for her open-mindedness, others remain concerned about women’s safety. 

People love watching other people fail – especially if they’re women, and especially if they hold power.

The damaging idea that trans women pose some unique and terrible threat to women continues to hold sway in public discourse. Sturgeon’s handling of the case of rapist Isla Bryson – a trans woman who transitioned in police custody after committing sexual crimes – was received with discriminatory language and hot-questioning. It was an impossible situation and, some believe, the tipping point for the First Minister’s resignation. Whilst I want to be careful to avoid stereotypes (“oh, she just really wanted to spend more time with her family!”, “she must need a break after all that COVID stuff!”, “maybe she just wasn’t cut out for it”), I think that it’st is possible for multiple things to be true at once. And people love watching other people fail – especially if they’re women, and especially if they hold power. Failure has certainly dogged Sturgeon’s career – early on, she had to run several times for the SNP before being selected by voters.  

Some commentators have argued that Sturgeon’s resignation comes amidst investigations into fundraising fraud in the party, and her ongoing connections to Alex Salmond – including the revelation that she failed to report accusations of sexual harassment levelled against him – are concerning. Whilst I think that it’s important that we don’t reify female politicians unquestioningly, Sturgeon deserves a round of applause, e or at the least a nice cake and a send-off. A woman of many firsts, she has proved that not only can women from ‘normal’ backgrounds survive in the toxic workplace of politics, but that they can make a real and enduring difference to society too. Nonetheless, SNP policies are set for a shake up once again, and risk falling into the lure of right-wing populism with the likes of Kate Forbes. Whether the SNP will stay committed to its 5 areas of LGBTQ+ rights remains to be seen, but in an uncertain climate for members of marginalised communities everywhere, we can only hope that more Sturgeons will emerge. The last 8+ years in Scotland should be remembered for their radicalism, both good and bad.