February 15, 2023 - 1:55pm

Looking back over Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure as First Minister of Scotland, there was never one magic moment that saw her poll ratings collapse.

In 2015, the year after she took over from Alex Salmond following his resignation in the wake of losing the 2014 independence referendum, she enjoyed a truly extraordinary level of support.

And she remains the best-rated Scottish politician. As she pointed out in her departure speech today: “I enjoy approval ratings after eight years in government which most leaders would give their right arms for.” She’s not wrong.

But the weakness of Sturgeon’s opponents, and the SNP’s iron grip on Scottish politics, has masked a slow bleed in support. 

With the exception of a big rally in the summer of 2020 as the pandemic hit – one also enjoyed by the Conservatives at Westminster – polling shows the balance of opinion shifting, with dissatisfaction gradually creeping up.

Yet if the trans row was merely the culmination of a long-term trend, it was a tipping point. According to YouGov’s most recent figures, 51% of respondents dislike the First Minister, versus only 26% who like her.

The questions put to Sturgeon by journalists at her press conference explain why this is. Drug deaths are “catastrophic”. NHS performance is poor. The attainment gap in Scottish schools remains. 

And for voters who don’t have independence as their number one priority, the fact that she kept detailing the progress she felt Scotland had made since 2014, the referendum, rather than Salmond’s 2011 landslide election or the SNP’s taking control of the Scottish Executive in 2007, probably said a lot about where they felt her priorities really lay.

Just at the weekend, the First Minister was insisting that she was going to get back on the front foot, waiting for the heat to come out of the trans issue and then reframing her legal challenge as a constitutional battle.

But new polling from Lord Ashcroft found that, contrary to received wisdom, Scots would rather have a law they liked from Westminster than one they disliked from Holyrood. And as UnHerd’s own polling shows, Scots are deeply out of step with their governing class on the trans question.

In her speech, Sturgeon suggested that the furore over her GRR Bill was down to polarised attitudes towards herself, claiming that issues which “are already controversial become almost irrationally so”.

It’s as good an excuse as any. But the most telling stat of all is probably that despite Brexit and all the Tory chaos, she has not moved the dial on independence to where it needs to be. And delivering independence, for this lifelong Nationalist, was always the prize.

Without it, the prospect of enduring the very real miseries of being a front-line politician just to govern Scotland day-to-day — and govern it badly — just wasn’t worth the fight. 

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.