LONDON — Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s government and a fiery campaigner for Scottish independence, said on Wednesday in a surprise announcement that she would resign, declaring that after more than eight years in office she was exhausted and had become too polarizing a figure to lead Scotland’s divisive politics effectively.
“Is carrying on right for me?” Ms. Sturgeon said at a hastily scheduled news conference in Edinburgh. “And more important, is me carrying on right for my country, my party, and for the independence cause I have spent my life fighting for?”
“I’ve reached the difficult conclusion that it’s not,” she concluded.
She said she would remain in her role until a successor was in place.
Ms. Sturgeon’s abrupt resignation removes one of the most visible figures from British politics — a skilled veteran of the United Kingdom’s system of power sharing, a sure-handed leader during Scotland’s ordeal with the coronavirus pandemic, and perhaps the most outspoken advocate of Scotland breaking away from the union.
But in recent weeks, Ms. Sturgeon, 52, had become embroiled in a dispute over the Scottish government’s policy on gender recognition. Britain’s Parliament rejected legislation from Scotland’s Parliament making it easier for people to change their gender. The debate over the issue erupted after a convicted rapist and transgender woman, Isla Bryson, was incarcerated in a women’s prison.
Nor are Scotland’s dreams of independence any closer than they were nearly a decade ago, when voters rejected a plan to break away from the United Kingdom. Support for independence has waxed and waned over the years, but the British government remains implacably opposed to allowing another referendum.
Ms. Sturgeon denied that she resigned over the gender legislation, but acknowledged that in the current hothouse political environment, “issues that are controversial end up almost irrationally so.”
Ms. Sturgeon’s party, the Scottish National Party, remains the dominant political force in Scotland, and her departure is unlikely to lessen its drive for independence, its founding goal. But as the party debates how and when to pursue a second independence referendum, it was unclear who would take up the mantle as the chief advocate.
Her announcement left Scotland’s political establishment at a loss. Only last month, she said in an interview with the BBC that she had “plenty in the tank” to continue leading Scotland and was “nowhere near ready” to step down.
On Wednesday, however, Ms. Sturgeon said she had been wrestling for weeks with the decision to resign. She spoke about being exhausted by the pandemic, during which she adopted a more cautious stance on masks and other social-distancing policies than the government in England.
There was an echo in Ms. Sturgeon’s resignation of that of Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, who announced her resignation last month by saying she “no longer had enough in the tank.”
Ms. Sturgeon, who joined the pro-independence Scottish National Party when she was 16, has spent her time in office vying for Scotland to secure as much additional power over its own affairs as possible.
Last year, she announced new plans for another Scottish independence referendum that would take place in October, reopening the question of whether Scotland would secede from Britain in what would be the second vote on Scottish independence in a decade.
Polls show that Ms. Sturgeon remains broadly popular, though her ratings have sagged since the pandemic ebbed and politics in Scotland have been taken over by issues like the gender recognition legislation.