Nicola Sturgeon, may never have been so adored as when she told the world she was walking away from it all…from Bute House, official residence of Scotland’s first minister; from the power; the (intermittent) glory and the chance to decide the future of 5.45 million people.
After her shock announcement on February 15, seasoned journalists tweeted appreciatively about Ms Sturgeon’s excellent communications skills, her (apparent) candour, her self-awareness and the breadth and range of what she read and absorbed.
Politicians – even those at odds with her (or especially those at odds with her?) – commended Ms Sturgeon’s eight and a half years of service as first minister. One and all, they hailed (or inwardly spat at) her skills as a master political operator.
The punditocracy found much to say. At least one elections expert said the change in the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader could boost the fortunes of Scottish Labour and thereby Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.
Were this to be the case and in the unlikely event British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak were still in his 10 Downing Street office at the next Scottish parliament election of May 2026, it would mean a new era of political prominence for British South Asian men. (Mr Sarwar is of Pakistani ethnicity and Mr Sunak’s origins lie in India.) But of course, both Mr Sunak and Mr Sarwar cannot triumph at the same time. Mr Sunak would only be in charge of Britain if his Conservative Party didn’t suffer a drubbing at the hands of Labour (on either side of the border).
But what was most interesting was an SNP official’s quick comparison of Ms Sturgeon’s shock good-bye announcement with that of New Zealand’s prime minister last month. “It’s a Jacinda Ardern moment,” the official said, in reference to the 42-year-old mother-of-one’s resignation citing the personal weight of the job. “Better to leave before the ship sinks and you’re pushed.”
It’s certainly worth thinking about why women leaders seem more ready than men to throw in the towel. But are they really more ready to leave? On her way out, Ms Ardern put it inelegantly, saying that there was “no more gas in the tank”. Not too long ago, Ms Sturgeon had said there was plenty of gas in the tank. Now, she says she’s leaving her job because “I am a human being as well as a politician”, whatever that means.
I would argue the sudden exit of two women leaders in two months does not signify much of anything. Think of other, less edifying examples. Liz Truss didn’t resign as UK prime minister because she graciously acknowledged the job might be beyond her. She was forced out, having all but crashed the pound and taken Britain into new territory as an apparently unstable, unpredictable country. More recently, Ms Truss has been fiercely arguing her case, blaming all around her and taking no responsibility for her actions.
There was Maggie Thatcher, who clung on and had to be prised out of Downing Street. And in many parts of the world, there are many examples of stubborn women leaders, who remain entrenched in their jobs and hold on by the skin of their (sometimes, stained and discoloured) teeth. Leaving high office is not a gendered character trait.