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Can only the heartless survive in politics?

Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern’s recent resignations show that politics isn’t for anyone with morality – or a heart.

15 Feb 2023

Scottish Government, Foundations World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons

“I feel like crying,” read the text from my mum when the news came through this morning of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as Scotland’s First Minister.

For many people in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is a hero. She’s led the Scottish National Party (SNP) into the best place it has ever been – dominating all other opposition across the country – and the party remains the firm favourite to win at the next Scottish election. She’s fought long and hard for Scottish independence and it’s likely she would have got it over the line had it not been halted by a UK Supreme Court ruling that Scotland would require Westminster’s permission for a second referendum.

When Sturgeon was announced as First Minister in 2014, she developed the UK’s first gender-balanced cabinet and has consistently centred the rights of marginalised people in Scotland throughout her career. Under her leadership, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce LGBT education into the school curriculum, and just last year, it also became the first country in the world to make period products free for all.

“For many people in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is a hero”

But apparently that’s not enough. In her resignation speech, Sturgeon cited the “brutality” of politics as just one reason for her decision to step down and said she had been “wrestling” with the decision for weeks. In this time, Sturgeon has been at the centre of a vicious debate around the misplacement of trans prisoners within Scottish prisons and has come under scrutiny for her plans to reform Scotland’s Gender Recognition Act. Although Sturgeon claims this didn’t steer her decision, the unfair criticism and increased media attention she has faced over the last few weeks would have no doubt taken its toll on her, and her ability to carry out her job.

Sturgeon’s resignation comes just under a month after Jacinda Ardern announced her decision to step down as New Zealand’s Prime Minister, similarly pointing to the difficulties of being a politician as factors in her decision. Ardern said she “no longer had enough in the tank” to do the job. Throughout her tenure, some New Zealanders compared her to Hitler, sent her death threats, and targeted her with misogynistic abuse. As writer and activist Shaneel Lal asked at the time, who would have enough left in the tank after that? 

“What Sturgeon’s and Ardern’s resignations show us is that politics is simply not built for genuine, progressive leaders”

Neither Sturgeon or Ardern were perfect politicians – if such a thing even exists. Ardern was critiqued for her performance on child poverty and her unclear stance on immigration, and Sturgeon failed in her aim to reduce Scotland’s education attainment gap. But what their resignations show us is that politics is simply not built for genuine, progressive leaders. Instead, we’re left in the hands of wealth-hoarding egomaniacs intent on peddling hateful policies and commentary on immigration, gender, sexuality and race. In Britain, we have the likes of Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman fumbling through a cost of living crisis and the longest period of strike action since 1989 whilst simultaneously bumping up their own salaries.

The immorality isn’t only in the Tory government; representing Labour, we have Keir Starmer, a man who campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister and served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – only to suspend Corbyn from the Labour Party after becoming leader himself in 2020. Starmer also said on Wednesday that Corbyn will not be readmitted back into the Labour party nor will he be allowed to stand for re-election. This dismal and disingenuous backtracking only goes to show that we can’t even assume politicians who profess to be ‘on our side’ truly know what is right from wrong. 

The loss of Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern from political life just proves what we’ve known all along to be true: politics is a job only fit for the heartless.