Thursday was a historic day at Holyrood. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister since 2014, stood up to take part in her 286th and final edition of First Minister’s Questions and to deliver a statement to the chamber marking her last appearance in Parliament as the leader of the Scottish Government and her party.
Leaders’ final question sessions come in different flavours. Tony Blair’s final knockabout Prime Minister’s Questions and David Cameron’s final outing both carried a friendly tone with a feel of the last day of school before the summer holidays about them.
Meanwhile, Theresa May’s last PMQs and former FM Alex Salmond’s final questions session were more confrontational, with the odd kind word thrown in here and there. Regardless, they are always noteworthy occasions.
Final questions sessions reflect the political weather under which they occur, and Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership swansong was no exception.
Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, piled in with questions about the SNP’s drop in membership numbers, earning the ire of the Presiding Officer for appearing to accuse the SNP of lying to the media. Labour’s Anas Sarwar then launched into a stinging attack on the Nationalists’ record on health and called for an immediate election, arguing that the Government would lose its mandate when Ms Sturgeon picked up her notepad and walked out the chamber.
For her part, the outgoing First Minister returned to her tried and tested methods. She blasted back at Mr Ross, calling for him to reveal the Tories’ membership numbers, like a seasoned card player demanding to see her opponent’s hand, and defended her record on the NHS robustly against Mr Sarwar’s barbs.
If it wasn’t for the common knowledge that it was Ms Sturgeon’s last FMQs, observers could be forgiven for thinking it was just any other Thursday and doing all they could to resist turning over to see if Bargain Hunt was still on the other side.
That was until the business of formal questions closed, and the parliamentary business moved on to the First Minister’s statement on her resignation and departure. There was a tangible change in the mood, from the argy-bargy, bubbling cauldron-like furore of the weekly exchanges to something calmer, more composed, and bordering on respectful.
Only the most bitter and partisan of individuals could deny Nicola Sturgeon’s importance in the short canon of Scottish devolution. An MSP since the first Scottish Parliament, initially for the Glasgow region and then her Glasgow Southside (formally Glasgow Govan) constituency, a former Deputy First Minister, Health Secretary, long-time leader of the SNP, and the woman who led the country through the COVID-19 pandemic is a list of political achievements that even her opponents must grant her is impressive. Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, did just that in the chamber.
Ms Sturgeon’s statement was unashamedly emotional. Some MSPs were reported as having brought tissues with them into the chamber. During her address, there were moments when the weight and importance of what she was saying were evident in the First Minister’s expression, tone, and phrasing.
The impact on her family, the sacrifices she had made personally, and the understanding that she hadn’t achieved everything she wanted were all crucial subjects for the FM during her speech. Still, it was the issue of gender equality, of well known-importance to Nicola Sturgeon, that seemed to impact her most intensely.
The FM talked about how proud she was to be the first woman to hold the top job in Scottish devolved politics and of her hope that her example would encourage young girls from across Scotland to appreciate that they can achieve whatever they want to in life.
Amid the noise and rancour that often characterises the goings on in Parliament, this observation struck a chord, not just with SNP MSPs (including Emma Roddick, who delivered a passionate tribute to the FM on this theme) but with the opposition leaders who both echoed this sentiment. Moments of agreement across the chamber are rare at Holyrood, but this one was sincere, legitimate, and essential.
Two things are apparent as Nicola Sturgeon prepares to take her place on the backbenches.
The first is that the importance of the Sturgeon Era in Scottish politics will continue for a long time. She was First Minister at a pivotal point in the maturity and development of Scottish devolved democracy. Her effect on it, and the effects she will personally feel of it, will endure.
The second is that she leaves a stage wide open for her successor, whoever that will be. Whether Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf, or Kate Forbes are the next person to take questions at FMQs, they will be forced to bring in their style and approach because the end of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership signals a shifting of the Scottish political sands and the chief demand placed on the new FM will be to ensure that they, and the Government they intend to lead, do not end up gasping for air beneath them.