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Nicola Sturgeon says she has “confidence” in whoever takes her place at the top of the SNP, saying the candidate will “lead this country into becoming an independent country”.
Speaking at her final first minister’s questions in Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon defended her and her party’s record in government against fierce criticism from both the Conservatives and Labour over the performance of the NHS, the gender recognition bill and drug related deaths in Scotland on her watch.
And while she said her successor would have “a tough job” ahead of them, she said she believed they would “build on [her] record and continue to maintain the trust of Scottish people”.
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After being questioned by MSPs for 45 ministers in what was her 286th outing at FMQs, Ms Sturgeon then began her final speech in parliament as leader, saying: “No matter what I do in future, nothing, absolutely nothing will come close to the experience of the past 3,046 days.
“Being first minister of the country I love has been a profound honour.”
Marking the three year anniversary since the first COVID lockdown was introduced across the UK – something she said “defined” her time in office – Ms Sturgeon reflected on how she had led Scotland “through good times but also through the toughest period of our recent history”.
But while the outgoing leader said the job had “variously, often all at once, [been] challenging, exhilarating and exhausting… every single day without exception, it has been an utter privilege”.
Ms Sturgeon said she was “overwhelmingly proud” of her achievements whilst in power, but particularly in advancing gender equality, saying: “No girl in our country now has any doubt that a woman can hold the highest office in the land.”
And she said she would continue to campaign on the issue, along with care experiences for young people, climate justice and “always, until the job is done, winning Scottish independence”.
Giving advice to her successor, Ms Sturgeon said: “Never forget that everything in this office is an opportunity to make something better for someone somewhere in Scotland.
“Do not shy away from the big challenges that are difficult. You won’t get everything right. But it is always better to try to aim high and fall short than to not try at all.”
Holding back tears as she delivered her final words as leader, she added: “Whether you voted for me or not… thank you so much for placing your trust in me.
“Words will never adequately convey the gratitude and the awe I hold in my heart for the opportunity I have had to serve as your first minister. It truly has been the privilege of my lifetime.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said while he and Ms Sturgeon saw each other “as adversaries rather than allies”, when she leaves office “she will bring to a close a political career that few if any can or will match its length”, adding: “In these times of political turbulence, that is steam power than many of us could only ever wish for.”
He said she had been “a formidable campaigner – as her political opponents over the years can unanimously agree on”, and the rare honour of being first minister was “even rarer still for, as Nicola Sturgeon described herself, as a working class girl from Ayrshire”.
Mr Ross added. “I recognise the positive message it sends that in Scotland every child should have the ability to reach the heights that they dream of and sometimes dreams do come true.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sawar called the first minister’s exit “a significant moment in Scottish politics”, and said he wanted to put on record his “respect and recognition for… more than 20 years of public service”.
He added: “Regardless of our many differences, even her harshest critics would accept that Nicola Sturgeon is an able and formidable politician who has stood at the forefront of Scottish politics for more than 15 years.
“And while we have disagreed passionately about what is best for the people, I have never for a moment doubted her love for Scotland.”
Mr Sawar also remarked on the significance of having the first woman first minister for the country, adding: “It was a sign to women and girls, regardless of their politics, that there should be no limit to their ambition, that there was no position, no office in the land, that they couldn’t aspire to and there was nothing they should not be able to achieve.”
New leader announcement on Monday
Ms Sturgeon announced last month that she would be stepping down as Scotland’s first minister and the leader of the SNP after more than eight years, saying the job “takes its toll on you and all around you”.
The surprise decision trigged a leadership election in her party, with finance minister Kate Forbes, health minister Humza Yousaf and ex-minister Ash Regan battling it out for the top spot.
The contest has been fiery at times, with even Ms Sturgeon describing it to Sky News’ Beth Rigby as “a less than edifying process”.
Voting closes at midday on Monday, with the party expected to announce the winner later that day.
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