If Nicola Sturgeon thought she could control the narrative by resigning at a time of her own choosing, then she must be sorely disappointed. While she, doubtless, saw herself as the mistress of her own destiny, events have taken their own wild course, as events are wont to do. When I say the First Minister’s departure has been like the popping of a cork from a bottle, I mean less that her fellow parliamentarians have been toasting a remarkable era, and more that it has unleashed division and resentments within her party that her unassailability had previously kept in check. By “doing a Jacinda Ardern”, she has denied the SNP an orderly succession, and created a power vacuum into which some of the worst elements of the Yes movement are now spewing their bile.

Nor has she been favoured by the news gods. That the Holyrood Public Audit Committee’s report on the CalMac ferry scandal AND damaging child poverty figures should be published on the day she was due to preside over her final First Minister’s questions was the opposite of serendipity, and something she could not have bargained for. Both stories played to the weaknesses in her stewardship. The poverty statistics underlined her tendency to overpromise and underdeliver (or, as her fiercest critics would put it, to “virtue signal” a commitment to redistributive policies while continuing to line the pockets of the middle classes). The report into the ferry scandal - which has cost taxpayers millions and left islanders without their vessels - underlined the lack of transparency and accountability that grew with the party’s hegemony.

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They added fuel to the Molotov cocktail Douglas Ross was already preparing to lob across the chamber, and to the general sense of opportunities squandered. And yet, because two contradictory things can be true at the same time, there was a classlessness - a churlishness even - to that cantankerous session, and to the zeal with which Sturgeon’s enemies have been sinking their teeth into the carcass of her reputation.

What had these Opposition politicians ever achieved to justify their refusal to join in her standing ovation? And how much cognitive dissonance does it require to bandy about the word “lie” when the ex-leader of your own party has just been telling porkies to Westminster’s Privileges Committee about his own time in power? Did you see BBC Question Time on Thursday night, Douglas? Did you? When Fiona Bruce asked the audience in Newcastle-under-Lyme whether they thought Boris Johnson had been telling the truth, and not a single one of them put their hand up? Even your fellow MP,  Andrew Bowie, had the grace to look embarrassed.

That Johnson should have been back in the spotlight on the eve of Sturgeon’s departure was another quirk of timing which carried its own weird asymmetry. A man hoping, desperately, to regain power versus a woman determined to divest herself of it. It was a reminder of the pandemic days, when they stood at rival podiums dispensing rival messages. If they were used as yardsticks for another, Sturgeon always came out on top; not because the policies she pursued were always better, or that she made no mistakes, but because most people believed that, unlike the self-entitled, nose-in-the-trough Johnson, she was acting in good faith. Now she is being viewed through a different lens. The playing field has not been levelled exactly - plumbing Johnson’s depths takes real commitment. But it’s fair to say, perhaps, that her sullying has left the gap between them less stark.

The Herald: Outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves the main chamber after her last First Minster's Questions (FMQs) in the main chamber of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2023. PA Photo. Photo credit should read:

The disappointment, for me at least, lies not in her government’s policies, which were always a mixed bag. It’s not like the scales have fallen from my eyes and I’ve seen the Baby Box and the Hate Crime Bill for what they were. The tendency towards gimmicks and grand social statements was never something I relished, and, while I believed - still believe - that the problems with, for example, the Named Person scheme were exaggerated for dubious reasons, the SNP’s slapdash approach to legislation was a recurring theme.

That Sturgeon’s timidity would prevent her capitalising on her popularity to deliver on pledges, such as council tax reform, came as a slow, dawning realisation rather than a big reveal. Equally, the conflict of interest intrinsic in having the leader of a party married to its chief executive had long been troubling. But the way that arrangement appears to have gnawed away at the party’s moral core - to the extent that it would dissemble to its own spin doctor, and therefore to the general public, about something as straightforward as membership numbers - did come as a shock. It gave a sour edge to Sturgeon’s refrain that it has been the “privilege of [her] life” to serve the Scottish people. “If it’s been such a privilege”, it is tempting to say, “then why are you treating us like fools?”

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At the same time, when you have been let down, it’s easy to get carried away. We live in a world where the pendulum is constantly swinging from hero to zero, though most people, and therefore politicians, are the usual mish-mash of good and bad, and entirely fallible. The same is true of legacies, yet when these are subject to the kind of revisionism we are seeing just now, all the positives tend to be written out. Sturgeon’s departure has prompted an orgy of schadenfreude, with those internal and external agitators who have devoted all their energy to making her job impossible squealing: “Look, we were right all along.” What a self-own it is to openly revel in the current SNP implosion. Yay, you were right. The country is screwed; but you were right. Let me ask you this, though: if your gripe against Sturgeon was that she didn’t deliver independence, then do you think the binfire you are celebrating will bring it any closer? And if your gripe is that she failed to improve the lives of the most marginalised, then which of her potential successors - from any party - do you think is going to succeed where she failed?

Another thing: all this talk of her supporters as a “cult”. Do you realise how contemptuous it sounds? Because - what ? - you, a world-weary cynic, are so much more politically astute than those who found in Sturgeon’s vision or her leadership something to admire?

The Herald: Nicola Sturgeon speaking during a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh where she announced she will stand down as First Minister of Scotland. Picture date: Wednesday February 15, 2023. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS Sturgeon. Photo credit should

There was, notwithstanding her limitations, much to admire. At a time when the Tories were baiting migrants and the EU, she stood for an openness to the world beyond Scottish or UK borders. Though it may be true that Scots are no less racist than anyone else, she never pandered to those baser instincts or stoked hatred to bolster her own position. She gave young women something to aspire to. And if you think that’s nothing, you’ve never lived in a world bereft of role models.

Policy-wise, too, there were genuine achievements. The SNP expanded free childcare, with more promised (something the UK government is now seeking to emulate). And while it is often said Sturgeon preferred to whine about Westminster than use the powers she had, Scotland now has the most progressive tax and benefits system in the UK, and its poorest families are receiving £25 per child per week to help offset the cost of living crisis.

Some of the vitriol smacks of jealousy. All political careers end in failure, they say, even Sturgeon’s. But the failure Sturgeon is experiencing is the kind most of her opponents would kill for: eight election victories and, even now, the highest approval rating of any Scottish leader. 

Sure, she should have been better and bolder. But the world’s a complicated place. It is not impossible to both lament what could have, should have been, and think: “We will not see her like again”.