SO the day has finally come that some dreaded, some longed for, and opponents positively fantasised about.

Nicola Sturgeon has quit as First Minister. Even writing these words seems quite unreal. She has been a fixture in Scottish politics for so long in the almost nine years she spent at the top – seeing off four prime ministers – and in the symbolic weight of those years, which is far greater.

Life before Sturgeon now feels like a bygone era – one where independence didn’t seem remotely possible, where the constitutional question didn’t hang over every single issue, where charlatans like Boris Johnson only wreaked havoc in the limited arena of the London mayor, where Covid had not transformed lives, the climate emergency was still a matter of debate and – of course – former boss Alex Salmond and herself were on speaking terms and in the same party.

The fact of her political demise as First Minister will strike everyone differently but as with all unexpected departures, the news brings to mind a kaleidoscope of images. The focused, dynamic deputy SNP leader who reduced then Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael to a blubbering wreck on STV’s indyref debate, with “Help me Rona” trending on social media as her well-trained legal mind took a sloppy Unionist case apart.

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The triumphant, well-dressed, tiny figure in the Hydro at the end of the post-referendum defeat tour of Scotland assured the tens of thousands present that the dream would stay alive. The constant figure every day during the long, weird, unsettling years of Covid lockdown providing reassurance and easy-to-understand explanations – in stark contrast to the customary absence or unnerving boosterish presence of the blethering Boris Johnson.

The well-prepared, impossible-to-perturb figure at the Holyrood dispatch box, putting successive Tory leaders in their place as they criticised Scottish progress in the face of their own Westminster cuts and gently – then not so gently – reminding Labour leaders, especially the unfortunate Richard Leonard, that the subject of his latest complaint was a Westminster, not a Holyrood, competence.

And I have my own memory of the first time Sturgeon addressed the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavík in 2016, delivering a keynote lecture that produced a standing ovation – exceptionally rare for normally reserved Nordic civic leaders and politicians – easily outshining her higher-status fellow speaker Ban Ki-moon, then UN secretary general. Afterwards, she stood patiently as a massive queue of people – mostly feisty, progressive, female political leaders – shuffled forwards to shake her hand and grab a quick word.

Despite what detractors may say – and on certain issues, I admit to being one – Nicola Sturgeon has an incredible presence, represents a kind of social democracy with which much of northern Europe identifies and in her David-vs-Goliath struggle to have Scotland’s democratic will acknowledged by another independence referendum, she has earned nothing but respect across most of Britain and the world.

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Like Jacinda Ardern, who resigned a few weeks ago, these two modern women – along with Finland’s Sanna Marin – have put their small countries on the map by talking with empathy and conviction not empty managerial soundbites.

Sturgeon talked repeatedly in her resignation address about the strain of a job that can only be done at full tilt and with 100% energy and attention. That’s true – and I’d guess even more difficult for a woman who was initially, very shy. I remember her contesting the SNP leadership the first time around in 2003, when her lack of pizzazz and presence meant she was trailing other candidates – which so unnerved Salmond, he returned to Scottish politics to stand in a joint slate as leader, shielding Nicola and letting her grow as a politician. This stood in stark contrast to Labour, with anyone who failed the party being simply cast on the scrap heap.

I DON’T think shyness ever left her – despite the familiarity of those Covid press conferences, and her grudging, joking acceptance of Janey Godley’s sweary versions of her podium chats complete with clicky pen.

Perhaps it was this temperamental shyness that drove her into the guarded, closeted leadership style where no one in the party has much input to decision-making except a few confidantes within her office, and, of course, her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

This created a double-whammy and over-centralisation of power that turned SNP conferences into uneasy corporate gatherings, sweeping genuine debate and internal democracy under the carpet.

The SNP say that Murrell will stay as chief executive. I’ve got to say that seems like the worst of all possible worlds – as the chief representative of the “old guard” stands watch over the election of the new. And that’s before any discussion of loans and earmarked campaigning accounts.

The only virtue of Sturgeon going is a fresh start. Murrell should make sure her big personal gesture of standing down to allow a genuine debate over future strategy hasn’t been made in vain.

But for some time, these will be secondary issues.

The difficulty for indy campaigners will be separating the cause from its most internationally recognisable advocate. Someone who made headlines and didn’t mince words.

Indeed, during a short contribution to David Lammy’s programme on LBC, I suggested that his question about her status was best answered by his own introduction – “a historic day in UK politics”.

Nicola was taken that seriously and respected that much – especially by political opponents with the wit and grace not to present like a gleeful Douglas Ross.

Of course, all sorts of questions now appear. Is the de facto referendum idea and indeed the March special conference going ahead or dead in the water?

Is Kate Forbes, Angus Robertson, Stephen Flynn or someone else the main leadership contender?

And can the question of leadership be addressed after some long-postponed and long-overdue straight-talking inside the SNP, or will it all be huckled along?

Please God no.

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It’s time for everyone unhappy with the “grin and bear it” school of SNP leadership to say enough is enough and adopt a different approach to the next chapter of the independence story right now.

But in the meantime, Nicola has left on her own terms and she’s left on a high – Scotland’s straitened public services nonetheless deliver outcomes that are consistently higher than UK averages.

We’ve got used to that, but such a short time back, it just wasn’t so.

She’ll be a very hard act to follow.

Let’s hope there’s a genuine, vigorous election process – not a coronation – and any perceived restrictions on excellent Westminster candidates are also lifted. Pronto.