First New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and now Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon: the world’s chief nannies are quitting before voters have a chance to push them out. The pair thrived off imposing Covid restrictions, only to find far less sympathy for their blend of woke politics and authoritarian control in 2023. It seems that, freed from lockdowns, many people are no longer willing to be nudged, cajoled, hectored, censored, monitored, checked, and approved. Nor are they willing to sacrifice their rights, their children’s safety, and their standard of living to appease a leader’s appetite for hollow displays of virtue.
In Scotland, Sturgeon’s commitment to transgender ideology proved her undoing. Having been first minister for almost a decade and, for much of this time, placed on a pedestal by a British media looking to contrast her favorably to Brexit-backing Conservative prime ministers based in London, Sturgeon naively assumed that she could push a Gender Recognition Reform Bill through the Scottish Parliament without much difficulty. Her proposed legislation would make it easier for people to pursue gender transition by removing the requirement for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and by reducing the length of time that applicants are expected to live as a member of the opposite sex. The law would also lower the age at which people can apply for a gender-recognition certificate from 18 to 16.
Sturgeon’s views on gender are out of kilter with those of the Scottish public. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of citizens oppose her reforms. Women, in particular, have expressed concern about the threat to single-sex spaces such as public toilets, domestic-violence refuges, and prisons, if men can access them by self-identifying as women. A UN Special Rapporteur intervened to warn that the proposed changes could endanger women and girls. What’s more, Sturgeon’s plans put the Scottish Parliament on a collision course with the government of the United Kingdom. If the bill is passed, being a woman would legally mean different things in different parts of the U.K., undermining national equalities legislation.
None of this bothered Sturgeon. She described critics of her proposed reforms as “bigots” who “cloak themselves in women’s rights to make it acceptable,” but are actually “deeply misogynist, often homophobic, [and] possibly . . . racist as well.”
But reality struck back. Last month, a Glasgow court found Adam Graham guilty of raping two women. Since perpetrating the attacks, Graham has transitioned and now identifies as a transgender woman named Isla Bryson. Under Sturgeon’s reforms, Graham/Bryson would have been incarcerated in a women’s jail. Indeed, when the Gender Recognition Reform Bill was put before the Scottish Parliament, an amendment designed to prevent sex offenders from changing gender was blocked on the basis that such situations simply never arise; to suggest otherwise was transphobic. But stories soon emerged of other male sex offenders, including at least one pedophile, who had transitioned after conviction and were serving time in women’s prisons.
Then something remarkable happened. Sturgeon began facing questions about whether Graham/Bryson was, in her opinion, a man or a woman—first from members of the Scottish Parliament and then from journalists. Sturgeon struggled to formulate a convincing answer, first claiming not to have enough information before referring only to “the individual” or “the rapist.” Sturgeon appeared to suggest that there were three human sex categories: male, female, and rapist. Or, to paraphrase the popular mantra: transwomen are women, until they commit rape, at which point they return to being men again. For the first time in a decade, Sturgeon appeared flustered. But the questions refused to go away and, days later, she resigned.
Sturgeon claims, of course, that her resignation has nothing to do with her controversial gender reforms. Instead, her resignation speech echoed the one made just a few weeks earlier by her southern hemisphere comrade-in-arms, Jacinda Ardern. Both women cited the extraordinary pressures of public life. Both alluded to the energy needed to lead effectively and the importance of stepping back when that no longer seems possible. Sturgeon complained about politics today being more intense, of having more of “a brutality” than in years past. Ardern referenced “the adversity you face in politics” and spoke of the need to “be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused.” Sturgeon argued that “issues that are controversial end up almost irrationally so.”
Liberal commentators have been fulsome in praising Sturgeon and Ardern for their—presumably distinctly feminine—capacity to know when the time is right to step back. But their lack of self-awareness is astonishing. Both Sturgeon and Ardern have, in their own way, enthusiastically driven “culture war” conflicts. In her resignation speech, Ardern listed among her achievements “progress on issues around our national identity,” saying she believes that “teaching history in schools and celebrating our own indigenous national holiday will all make a difference for years to come.” What this means in practice is a renaming of towns and buildings and Maori and indigenous creation myths being “given equal billing to hard science” in school curriculum despite only 17 percent of New Zealanders identifying as Maori. To initiate such conflict and then complain about “adversity” is rich.
Sturgeon has even more gall. She complains about “issues becoming controversial” while refusing to listen to women concerned about their safety. She complains about “irrationality” while believing that hormones and chromosomes, primary and secondary sex characteristics, and all those other rational, science-y type things are somehow irrelevant.
Both Sturgeon and Ardern were in their element leading their nations through the Covid pandemic. Ardern famously went for zero Covid, sealing off New Zealand’s borders for over two years, at great cost to the many citizens with relatives abroad. Repeated lockdowns put social and economic life on hold seemingly indefinitely. She spoke of her intent to create a “two tier society,” with freedom for the vaccinated but not the unvaccinated. Even before Covid struck, Ardern waged war on “misinformation.” During the pandemic, she led global calls to “suppress disinformation”—in other words, to enforce state censorship.
Whenever it was in her power to do so, Sturgeon imposed lockdowns that were more severe and more restrictive than those in place in the rest of the United Kingdom. Her public demands for more curbs on people’s behavior put pressure on the British government. Sturgeon’s insistence that children wear masks to school in Scotland influenced the British government’s decision to mandate face masks in schools across England. Scotland’s Covid authoritarianism did not lead to lower death rates. In fact, Scotland recorded a higher number of deaths per capita than England. New Zealand likewise witnessed record Covid death rates once restrictions were lifted.
Ardern and Sturgeon have been eager to tout their records in office, but tangible successes are hard to find. In Scotland, earnings have fallen during Sturgeon’s time in office. They now stand at just 92.9 percent of the U.K. average—the lowest figure in a decade. People in Scotland are poorer as a direct result of Sturgeon’s policies. Likewise, New Zealand’s economy has contracted under Ardern’s leadership and is still struggling to recover. Business confidence stands at a near 50-year low.
With their concern for woke issues like gender and identity politics, Sturgeon and Ardern have enjoyed reputations for being morally virtuous. But their lack of concern with the economy and wages reveals their contempt for the problems of ordinary people. Their policies reinforce this contempt. Efforts to clamp down on free speech show us that they do not trust ordinary people to reach their own conclusions and make reasonable decisions. Higher taxes on alcohol reveal that they do not trust people to consume alcohol responsibly. Bans on corporal punishment reveal distrust in parents’ ability to manage discipline of their own children. New school curricula show that families are not to be trusted in socializing their children. This contempt for people is not a bug in the woke system, but a key feature. It can be found in the words and actions of Justin Trudeau, Joe Biden, and several recent British prime ministers, all of whom assume that, without such guidance, their constituents will be transphobic, homophobic, and probably racist, too.
Both Sturgeon and Ardern recognized that the policies they implemented could not withstand democratic scrutiny. Opinion polls show that support for both women was plummeting when they resigned. Both preferred rule by decree to the need to justify themselves to voters. It is excellent news that they are gone, but voters should be on guard for the next woke authoritarian waiting in the wings.
Photos by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images (left) / Jane Barlow - Pool/Getty Images (right)