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Nicola Sturgeon speaks during a press conference at Bute House where she announced she will stand down as First Minister of Scotland, in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, on Feb. 15.Jane Barlow/Getty Images

A surprise announcement by Nicola Sturgeon that she plans to resign as Scotland’s First Minister has thrown the Scottish independence movement into turmoil and raised questions about a future referendum on sovereignty.

Ms. Sturgeon, 52, announced on Wednesday that she will step down as First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party after eight years in office. She plans to stay on until a new leader is chosen by party members in the next couple of months.

“This decision comes from a deeper and longer-term assessment. I know it may seem sudden, but I have been wrestling with it, albeit with oscillating levels of intensity for some weeks,” Ms. Sturgeon said during a press conference in Edinburgh. “Maybe I want to spend a bit of time on Nicola Sturgeon the human being. Does that sound selfish? I hope it doesn’t.”

Ms. Sturgeon has been on the front bench of the SNP for nearly 20 years and a passionate advocate for independence since she was a teenager. “Winning independence is the cause I have dedicated a lifetime to. It is a cause I believe in with every fibre of my being,” she said Wednesday. “And it is a cause I am convinced is being won.”

She has been a proven election winner – leading the party to impressive victories in 2016 and 2021 – and she regularly scores higher in public approval ratings than almost every other politician in Britain.

But her long tenure has also led to criticism on several fronts, from those who say Scotland’s health care service lags other parts of the United Kingdom to opponents of recent legislation that makes it easier for people as young as 16 to change their gender through self identification.

Her cherished goal of Scottish independence has also remained elusive.

She played a leading role in the 2014 referendum on independence which the Yes side lost by a margin of 55 per cent to 45 per cent. The defeat led to the resignation of then SNP leader and first minister Alex Salmond; Ms. Sturgeon took over as his replacement.

She began calling for a second vote on independence in 2016 after the U.K.-wide referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. The United Kingdom as a whole narrowly backed leaving the EU – 52 per cent to 48 per cent – but around two-thirds of Scots voted to remain in the bloc. Ms. Sturgeon argued that Brexit had been a fundamental change for Scotland and that Scots deserved another say on sovereignty.

Successive British prime ministers refused to provide the required legal consent for a second referendum. Last year Ms. Sturgeon asked Britain’s Supreme Court to rule on whether the Scottish Parliament could call one without Westminster’s approval. In a unanimous decision last November a panel of five judges said the 1998 legislation that created the Scottish Parliament did not give it the power to unilaterally call a vote on independence.

Ms. Sturgeon decried the ruling as an affront to democracy and vowed to use the next U.K. general election, expected in 2024, as a “de facto referendum on sovereignty.” She also announced plans for an SNP conference in March to decide the party’s next move on independence.

Despite Ms. Sturgeon’s efforts, most Scots have yet to embrace sovereignty. Public support for independence has not changed dramatically since 2014, and opinion polls show the population remains evenly divided on the issue.

There have been grumblings within the SNP about Ms. Sturgeon’s leadership and whether she remained as committed to the cause. SNP members have also questioned her plan to use the next election as a kind of referendum on sovereignty given that so many other issues will be at play.

Mr. Salmon has been especially critical of Ms. Sturgeon and has formed a rival party, called Alba, which wants to move much faster on independence.

On Wednesday, he praised Ms. Sturgeon as a “first-rate political communicator and election winner” but said the independence movement has been left with no clear strategy. “The previously accepted referendum route has been closed and the de facto referendum-election proposal is now, at best, up in the air.”

Ms. Sturgeon acknowledged during her press conference that her proposal to use the next general election as a vote on sovereignty was not universally accepted. “I’ve never pretended it is perfect. No second best option ever is,” she said. “That is why I have always been clear that the decision must be taken by the SNP collectively, not by me alone.”

Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent in England, said Ms. Sturgeon’s resignation will be a blow to the independence movement.

“With the exception of Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon is the only major pro-independence politician with name recognition,” he said. “When you ask Scots to rank their top priorities independence is only seventh and most say they do not want a second referendum any time soon. In other words, perhaps the breakup of the United Kingdom is not so inevitable after all.”