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The Departures of Ardern and Sturgeon Reveal a Sad Political Truth

Within the space of a month the western world has lost two of its most powerful and respected political leaders following the resignations of Jacinda Ardern on 19 January and Nicola Sturgeon on 15 February.  As they are both women, still sadly a rarity at the top of government, commentators have been drawn to view these two resignations in a similar light and draw similar conclusions.  The common themes are “burnout”, the pressures on women, the toll on them both, and the immense personal sacrifices politicians must regularly make.

In in reading Ardern’s resignation letter, and in viewing the actual speech, one gets a clear sense of the exhaustion she seemed to feel.  She herself confessed that she “no longer had enough in the tank to do it (the role of PM) justice”.  Fair enough. 

However, this is not a fair reading of Sturgeon’s letter, neither as it is written or in its delivery.   Whilst Sturgeon does admit that she is “a human being, as well as a politician”, this hardly seems a revelation.  She also refers to her niece and nephew, who have grown from infants to 17 years of age during her tenure in high-level politics.  Nevertheless, this does not strike me as a story of exhaustion, pressure, or sacrifice.  Sturgeon notes that she absolutely possesses the “resilience to get through this latest period of pressure”, and that she has resolved “seemingly intractable issues”, on many previous occasions.  However, she makes a strong and convincing case that: 1) Politics has become personalised in Scotland, and judgements are too often about her rather than the underlying issues, 2) That this is undermining the causes she cares about and has dedicated her life to addressing—most importantly Scottish independence, 3) That the SNP, like all parties, needs to move on beyond a single individual, and, 4) That someone else might be better suited to reach across the divide and bring along those who are required to yield a solid majority in favour of independence,  Essentially, she has convinced everyone she is capable of convincing, and that another leader might be more effective in broadening support and reaching across the divide.

So frankly, I find it a bit irritating and patronising that this “ahh, the poor things were exhausted” theme has emerged. Women in politics are often subjected to the most simplistic stereotypes, and this seemed once again to be the case.  It is lazy journalism and not an accurate portrayal of Sturgeon and what she asserts is behind her decision.  I pray for a time when women politicians are judged according to similar standards to their male counterparts, rather than made to fit into simplistic tropes.  But this is not the main point of this post. 

Whilst it is true that both Ardern and Sturgeon lead nations (each of which has between 5.0 and 5.5 million), and that both are women, I believe there is noble common ground which is the most interesting thing about these characters and their 1Q23 decisions.  These two leaders see themselves as true public servants, who owe it to themselves and their respective countries, to give it their best—and if they cannot, to move on.  Although they possess very different styles and personalities, both seem to me to have a sense of responsibility, of duty, of respect for the parties they led and the offices they held, as well as the citizens who elected them.

The contrast with the two selfish megalomaniacs who led the US and UK until recently could not be greater—I am of course referring to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.  Whatever one thought of their politics or their policies, it would be challenging in the extreme to see either of these two men as anything but self-serving.  The idea that either cared deeply about their citizens, their parties, their offices or their governmental responsibilities is laughable.  There was almost nothing or no one they would hesitate to throw under a bus in pursuit of their own self-aggrandizement.  I am not sure even they knew what goals or objectives they were pursuing, beyond the need to stay in power.  Putin, Netanyahu, Erdogan and others are more extreme examples of this type of politician—what will they not do to remain in office?   It is here that the contrast with Ardern and Sturgeon is so great—not in their gender, or their tenacity, or their resilience, but in their values, in their sense of decency and in their respect for their roles as public servants.

It is true that Sturgeon and Ardern are women—but not all female politicians possess these commendable character traits.   I confess, I do struggle to come up with male politicians who have resigned whilst at or near the top of their game, and before they were thrown out of office, either by their party or their electorate.  Perhaps Paddy Ashdown was an example.  He led the Liberal Democrats (the UK’s third largest party) to more than double their seats in the 1997 general election (from 20 to 46, in comparison with 11 after the last election in 2019) and then resigned of his own accord, eventually to become UN High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006.  However, Ashdown was never elected leader of the UK, and thus his stepping down from the LD leadership was a vastly different class of decision.  If there are men you can think of, I would be delighted to hear from you.

So I think a more careful reading of these two departures is about a more profound and depressing political truth.  The people prepared to put up with the bullshit, and survive and thrive as leaders, are far too often the LAST people we should want to have in office—and those we might most want to keep are those who might be most inclined to depart sooner than we may wish.  The nearly simultaneous departures of Sturgeon and Ardern bring this depressing fact into sharp relief.  How on earth can we fix this?

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—17 February 2023

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments.