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First minister of Scotland resigns

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After eight years, Nicola Sturgeon has unexpectedly resigned as the first minister of Scotland. Her shock departure could mark a new chapter in the Scottish fight for independence and in the tumultuous relationship between Edinburgh and London. Reporter Willem Marx joins us from London. Hi there.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Hi, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: I'm good. Why did Sturgeon say she's stepping down?

MARX: Well, she said the position had taken a toll on her, to use her words, physically and mentally, and that in recent years, the life of a politician in Britain contains a lot more, quote, "intensity and brutality" than was perhaps the case in the past.

SHAPIRO: How much of this has to do with Brexit, which was such a big shake-up during her tenure?

MARX: Well, it is worth noting Sturgeon was the head of government in Scotland during the Brexit referendum and its aftermath. And that, of course, created a new level of hostility towards Britain's political class among many people. The majority of folks in Scotland didn't want Brexit to happen, and given Sturgeon's willingness to openly criticize not only that Brexit decision but also a whole host of other actions taken by a succession of British prime ministers down in London, she's gained a fair few opponents in the political realm, shall we say.

SHAPIRO: After nearly a decade leading Scotland, what does this announcement mean politically for Scotland and for the U.K. as a whole?

MARX: Well, in Scotland, Sturgeon has really dominated politics for the best part of a decade, as you mentioned there. And by stepping down, she's leaving a massive power vacuum, not only in the government itself but also inside her own Scottish National Party, or SNP, where political analysts essentially say there's no obvious successor. When it comes to the Scottish independence movement that she's long championed, even Sturgeon's own predecessor, a man called Alex Salmond, has said it is now being left with no clear strategy. So for the U.K. as a whole, this does matter because Sturgeon had for years been pushing for another referendum on Scottish independence. You may remember the last one back in 2014.

SHAPIRO: I covered it as a London correspondent. Yeah.

MARX: Well, in recent months, that prospect has faded after the court said she could not organize that kind of referendum again unilaterally without approval from British government down in Westminster. And British conservative prime ministers, including Theresa May and Boris Johnson, they've said that was not something they were going to allow.

SHAPIRO: Well, so if there is no obvious successor for her, what happens next?

MARX: Well, you know, in a practical sense, Sturgeon has said she'll remain as first minister until a new leader of her SNP party is selected. She'll keep working as a member of the Scottish Parliament until at least May 2026, when the next election's expected. And although the current British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, thanked Sturgeon in a statement for her, quote, "long-standing service," it's not entirely clear whether a new SNP leader will be more hardline when it comes to that defining political issue, Scottish independence, or if the next leader of Scotland's government will be able to develop a warmer, indeed a more productive relationship with Sunak and the U.K. government.

For years, Sturgeon's criticized, indeed antagonized, her counterparts in London. But her personal popularity in Scotland has actually fallen in recent months, and any new leader will need to remain popular and deliver on a whole host of other local government promises around things like health care and education and energy if they're to once more seek to rely on any kind of majority in that quest for Scotland's future independence after more than 300 years as part of the United Kingdom.

SHAPIRO: Reporter Willem Marx in London, thanks a lot.

MARX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx