(CN) — Scotland's longtime leader Nicola Sturgeon unexpectedly resigned on Wednesday, nearly three months after the United Kingdom's Supreme Court rejected her government's attempt to hold an independence referendum.
In announcing her resignation, Sturgeon said she was stepping down for the good of both her Scottish National Party and the cause of Scottish independence. The SNP's chief goal has long been to push for Scottish autonomy and independence.
The resignation of such a gifted and well-respected politician throws Scottish politics into turmoil and may weaken the drive for independence. She said she'd remain in charge until the SNP finds a successor.
“This decision comes from a deeper and longer-term assessment,” she said Wednesday. “I know it might seem sudden but I have been wrestling with it, albeit with oscillating levels of intensity, for some weeks.”
In a statement, she added she'd known “almost instinctively” that she would know when “to make way for someone else.”
“In my head and in my heart, I know that time is now,” she said.
The drive for independence gained momentum and urgency following the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union. A majority of Scots voted against leaving the EU in a 2016 referendum.
But in November, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government does not have the power to call an independence referendum without the approval of the British government. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are opposed to Scottish independence.
The high court rejected the Scottish government’s argument that an advisory referendum, without legal force, was within the scope of the Scottish Parliament’s legislative powers. The British government is ruling out approval of a referendum, saying that question was settled with a 2014 referendum that saw about 55% of Scottish voters reject leaving the U.K. Support for independence has grown since then and polls show a majority of Scots in favor of breaking away from the U.K.
Sturgeon wanted to hold a new referendum in October pending the decision from the high court. Following the judicial setback, she said she'd turn her party’s campaign in the next general election into a de facto poll on independence. Scots are expected to go to the polls next year.
The denial of either political or legal routes to a second referendum has raised the stakes; in turn, the independence movement has begun to argue that Scots are being denied their democratic right to choose their own future.
“The blocking of a referendum as the accepted, constitutional route to independence is a democratic outrage,” Sturgeon said. “But it puts the onus on us to decide how Scottish democracy will be protected and to ensure that the will of the Scottish people prevails.”
She said that support for independence “needs to be solidified” and “to achieve that we need to reach across the divide in Scottish politics, and my judgment now is that this needs a new leader.”
Her resignation likely was not prompted only by calculations over how to gain independence and personal considerations.
Her government has been racked by controversies over its gender reforms and the recent case of a convicted rapist who was placed in a woman's prison after self-identifying as a woman.
Last December, the Scottish parliament passed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill that made it much easier for transgender people to legally change their gender identity.
But the bill was vetoed in January by the British government, which can technically choose to veto any Scottish legislation if it fails to comply with existing U.K.-wide laws. It was a step that had never been taken before.
Sturgeon was furious with the veto, calling it “a full frontal attack on Scottish democracy.”
The British government said the Scottish law created an ambiguous dual system of gender recognition. Under British laws, transgender people can legally change their identity only after they receive a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and prove that they have lived in their new gender identity for at least two continuous years. The Scottish law removed the medical and evidential requirements, and lowered the age at which a person can change their gender identity from 18 to 16.
Critics of the Scottish law claimed it would allow people to change their gender identity too easily and enable them to enter women-only spaces, such as bathrooms, in bad faith.
Sturgeon's government faced dissent over the laws in Scotland with the Alba Party breaking away from the Scottish Nationalists in 2021 and the reform causing a large rebellion within the SNP too.
Meanwhile, Sturgeon's gender reform faced criticism due to the case of Isla Bryson, a transgender woman found guilty in January of raping two women before transitioning. Bryson, who was once known as Adam Graham, identified himself as a woman and then was placed in Scotland's sole women-only prison, a decision that sparked outrage.
Bryson's case – and similar ones that emerged in recent weeks – was seen as exposing flaws in Sturgeon's gender reforms.
Nonetheless, Sturgeon remained steadfast in her support for her government's gender legislation, though she intervened in Bryson's case and ensured the rapist was transferred to a male prison for evaluation.
On Wednesday, Sturgeon denied any “short-term pressures” were behind her decision to resign.
Sturgeon is Scotland's longest-serving leader and the country's first female first minister. She took office in 2014 and enjoyed high approval ratings, though polls show her popularity has dipped.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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