THE resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minister is undoubtedly the end of an era. I watched all this unfold last week from 7000 miles away on Big Island in Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Such a distance – geographically and culturally – certainly contributed to this event feeling so strange and a sudden shock, but so too did some of the resulting commentary. Views like the SNP are “finished”; independence is “over” and the Union was potentially “saved” – with normal service resumed – continue across much of the media.

Any subsequent assessment of Sturgeon’s leadership has to acknowledge her many personal qualities and gifts as a politician and communicator. But we also have to inject a note of caution. With the passing of time how we assess Sturgeon today will change depending on how the future unfolds; examples being how the SNP perform in office, its electoral success, and the nature of independence.

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Having said that we can make some qualified judgements which point to future challenges. First, in terms of electoral record, Sturgeon was a winner, presiding over an SNP which won two Holyrood and three Westminster elections and, counting European and local elections, won eight in a row.

Second, Sturgeon has in her leadership style embodied and spoken for part of Scotland. This is part of what successful modern political leaders do, but as academic Ewan Gibbs pointed out this has become increasingly frayed by the party’s record in government and limits to its social democratic credentials. Combining this with the fallout over gender recognition has fractured a number of key constituencies who once looked to Sturgeon – including some feminist campaigners.

Third, the party’s record in office has increasingly become mixed and patchy, the confidence and shine of the earlier years dulled by governing in hard times. There has been some championing of solidarity and redistribution via the embryonic Scottish tax and welfare system, and while it is head and shoulders above Westminster, it is all very hesitant.

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Fourth, on independence, there has been an inability – even an unwillingness – to renew the vision, detail and political offer. Much time and energy have been spent on process politics and the principle of Scotland’s right to decide, and not enough on remaking independence.

Some of the above can be explained by the dynamics of managing the SNP as Scotland’s dominant party and its “Big Tent” appeal. Salmond in the earlier 2007 and 2011 victories took the SNP up the mountain; Sturgeon with 2015, 2016 and 2021 maintained the party at or near the peak. But they are very different political environments: one the giddy feel of advancing, the other the nervous maintenance of a nationwide popular coalition.

Yet being Scotland’s leading party and government is not the same as making a majority for independence. The former requires approximately 45%; the latter at least 55% plus if not more – and listening to the Scotland currently beyond the SNP and independence.

This has always been a tension in the SNP and independence. Independence is not just about the SNP, but to realistically succeed it needs a popular SNP.

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This produces numerous tensions, between the SNP as a party of government and how it relates to other independence strands.

Add to this the nature of the SNP and the appeal of independence. This is not solely about Scotland but is influenced by UK politics, Westminster and the British state.

What is illuminating in recent years is that the moral decline of UK politics – Brexit, Boris Johnson, endless Tory psycho-dramas, the ultra-rightward march on asylum and refugees – has not pushed independence into a winning position.

That should tell us something about the contours of now and the future. The case for independence will not be won by Westminster meltdown. Similarly, the challenges the Union case face are not going to evaporate post-Sturgeon or with the likely election of a UK Labour government next year. That is a warning to complacent conservatives – whether pro-independence or pro-Union.

If Keir Starmer becomes Prime Minister in 2024, UK and Scottish politics will enter a new phase – with a different atmosphere, agendas, mood music and issues. And which will have consequences for Scottish independence.

The National: Sir Keir Starmer

That will be a challenge to the SNP. All of Sturgeon’s period as First Minister has been shaped by UK Tory Governments, UK Labour’s unelectability and the party being on the back foot in Scotland post-2014.

This is no longer the case. Labour with all its limitations is not the equivalent of the Tories – despite Labour’s fiscal, economic and democratic conservatism and alignment for now to the wreckage of the Tory hard Brexit.

Labour strategists hope that part of what they see as a “soft Yes” vote can come to them with the promise that electing a Labour government will bring more speedy change and an end to Tory rule than independence can.

So far Labour’s recovery in Scotland to 29%-30% has been nearly all at the expense of the decline of the Tories, encouraged by their implosion in England. To win over SNP supporters, Labour will need a more calibrated message than just banging away about the moral equivalence of “Scotland’s two failed governments: Tory and SNP.”

This is politically tone-deaf, as bad as the anti-Labour tribalism in some independence supporters that sees no difference between the two big Westminster parties.

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Relevant to all this is the culture of the SNP as a party.

Sixteen years in office has changed it, as has the expansion of membership. The party has gained resources and more advocates and activists but has lost an intimacy and familiarity.

The years of office have also produced a belief at the top that the leadership knows best which has played into the illusion of politics being about “the great leader”.

It is not an accident that Sturgeon has left no obvious successor.

This is because her leadership style has tended to horde power and decisions, and not overtly encourage new voices and talents.

The SNP need not just a vision of independence, but one about the future of Scotland. One with ambition, direction, road maps and a sense of destination along with who we want to be.

This vision of the future Scotland cannot come from the SNP or the Scottish Government in the way that the White Paper Scotland’s Future did in 2013.

Instead, a more collective, open, generous leadership would embrace the art of partly letting go at the top of government, in the party and across Scotland.

Independence and the future of the nation would be owned and created by a wide cross-section of Scotland: trade unions, campaigning and advocacy groups, NGOs, think-tanks, academics and experts.

Ultimately, post-independence, it would be owned by all of Scotland, irrespective of whether they had been Yes or No.

Sixteen years into the SNP in office, just as with UK Labour, the perils of listening to voices saying “steady as she goes”, “one more heave” and advocating orthodox, conservative politics as the way to make the case for far-reaching change has to be resisted.

On the backs of Sturgeon’s resignation and Jeremy Corbyn’s exclusion as a future Labour candidate, numerous Westminster watchers such as John Rentoul have been celebrating the return of “normal politics” and the retreat of those challenging the system.

It is too early and too premature to claim that – given the state of the UK and the challenges it faces, let alone the nature of the global order and propensity for crisis, turbulence and further disruptions and shocks.

The SNP have remade much of modern Scotland and how we see ourselves. In so doing, they have become victims of their own successes, the pressures of office and the limits of devolution.

There is no way to renew as a party of government and vehicle for independence by clinging to the old ways.

The challenge for any new SNP leader is to shift gear as Scotland, the UK and the world go through tumultuous change. This involves offering reassurance, but much more about understanding the disputatious times we live in, and daring to chart a map of that future Scotland.

Easier said than done, but when you are Scotland’s dominant party you do have some advantages, and now is the time to take them.