Had everything gone to plan, Nicola Sturgeon would likely be in the headlines for very different reasons. The former first minister of Scotland announced her resignation unexpectedly in February after more than eight years in office. At this point, she was internationally respected and it was predicted that her next job could be at the United Nations or European Union.
Instead, on 11 June, Sturgeon found herself under arrest and at the centre of a fraud investigation. She spent seven hours in a police interview room answering questions about £600,000 of funding raised by the SNP to fight a second independence referendum, which now appears to have vanished from the party’s accounts. In this humiliating experience, she was following in the wake of her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s former chief executive, and Colin Beattie, its former treasurer. They were both arrested and interrogated a few months before.
All three were released without charge pending further inquiry. But Operation Branchform, as the investigation is known, is not over, and its ultimate political and personal consequences are yet to be determined. These are troubled days for Sturgeon, for the SNP, and for Scotland.
It was on 5 April that officers swooped on the home shared by Sturgeon and Murrell near Glasgow, erecting a large blue tent in their front garden while removing boxes of documents from the house. At the same time, there was a raid on the SNP’s headquarters in Edinburgh, from which many more files were taken. Police later seized a £110,000 luxury motorhome from the driveway of Murrell’s mother’s house in Dunfermline.
A video emerged from March 2021 – shortly before Branchform began – that shows Sturgeon warning members of her party’s National Executive Committee to keep quiet about any concerns they might have over the state of SNP accounts. She told them: “The party has never been in a stronger financial position than it is right now and that’s a reflection of our strength and our membership.” It was also revealed that the SNP’s long-time auditors, Johnston Carmichael, quit in October last year. The party only narrowly met the May deadline for submitting its Westminster accounts after appointing a Manchester-based company, AMS Accountants Group – it would otherwise have been ineligible for £1.2m in parliamentary funding for its 45 MPs.
This relentless drama has astonished voters, and has inevitably raised questions about the probity of Scotland’s governing party and its leaders. But following her release from custody, Sturgeon issued a defiant statement protesting her innocence, declaring that the experience had been “both a shock and deeply distressing”. She would, she insisted, “never do anything to harm either the SNP or the country”.
But much of the harm – politically, at least – has already been done. The scandal has blighted the first months in office of Sturgeon’s anointed successor, Humza Yousaf. The constant drumbeat of arrests and revelations has overwhelmed his efforts to establish himself in office, which have largely revolved around reversing a series of unpopular or unworkable policies left behind by his friend and mentor. If there were doubts over Yousaf’s aptitude for the top job, he has had little chance to confound them. Donations to the party have collapsed (it received a single £4,000 donation from a James Murdoch in the first three months of this year).
The SNP, which after years of stability was thrown into crisis by Sturgeon’s resignation, continues to be roiled by internal dissent. Many of its elected politicians and members favoured Sturgeon-sceptic Kate Forbes in the leadership contest rather than Yousaf (he defeated her by 52 per cent to 48 per cent). The legal dispute over Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill continues. Proposals to introduce a deposit return scheme to incentivise the recycling of drinks containers have similarly been blocked by Westminster, while Yousaf has been forced to halt Sturgeon’s plans to introduce a ban on alcohol advertising and to create a National Care Service.
The former leadership candidate Ash Regan, who resigned as community safety minister over the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, has said Sturgeon should consider resigning her SNP membership. Michelle Thomson, an SNP MSP, was suspended by the party leadership in 2015 following allegations of irregular property deals and says “consistent” values should be applied. But Yousaf is refusing to take action against Sturgeon.
Opposition politicians see an opportunity finally to end the SNP’s 16-year hegemony. They gleefully point out that both former SNP first ministers have been arrested after leaving office – Alex Salmond, who resigned in 2014 to make way for Sturgeon, was later cleared in court over allegations of sexual misconduct while in office.
The electorate, unsurprisingly, is looking towards alternatives. A succession of polls have shown a rise in support for the once-moribund Scottish Labour, suggesting the party could win as many as 20 seats at next year’s general election (at present it holds just one). Such an advance would enable Labour credibly to bid for control of the Scottish Parliament in the 2026 Holyrood elections. The pro-independence Scottish Greens, in coalition with the SNP, and Salmond’s Alba Party, will also hope to attract disillusioned nationalist voters.
Amid all this upheaval, there is no prospect of a second referendum. And if Sturgeon places anything above her lifelong dream of an independent Scotland, it is her personal integrity. Both are now in grave danger.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out