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10 December 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 10:00am

Why civil war is breaking out in the SNP

Even Nicola Sturgeon’s supporters express doubts about the way she is managing the Scottish independence campaign.

By Chris Deerin

This has been an exciting week for the twitchers of the Scottish political world. A buzz surrounds the public sighting of the lesser-spotted Peter Murrell. As he fluttered briefly from the shadows into the light on Tuesday (8 December), many of us got our first real view of this rare bird – the man who for two decades has run Scotland’s largest party, who has won elections like Lewis Hamilton wins Grands Prix, and who also happens to be “him indoors”.

Murrell is both the SNP’s chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband. He operates in back rooms with a relatively small, tightly-knit staff and treats the limelight as a particularly sensitive vampire would. It was only when I tuned in to his appearance on Tuesday before the Holyrood committee investigating the Alex Salmond affair that I realised I’d never heard his voice before.

We quickly saw why Murrell’s wife is the superstar frontwoman and he effectively sits at the back, keeping the beat. He presents a rotund, owlish figure, with a shaved, billiard-ball head and frameless glasses, like a well-lunched, under-exercised John Swinney. It is hard to imagine Murrell striding on to a stage and holding 10,000 people in thrall with his magnetic charisma, or, say, a nation following him faithfully into a brave new world. Horses for courses, and all that.

It was his birthday and, Scotland being a small place, each member of the cross-party committee began by wishing him many happy returns. Then the smiles disappeared. Murrell, for all his experience, is unused to being asked forensic questions by hostile actors in front of the cameras. Opposition MSPs saw the chance to land some boss-level blows, a twofer where every jab that connected with “Mr Sturgeon” also impacted on his wife.

Murrell did his best to be as boring as possible, but in this he failed. In fact, he only added to the general confusion and suspicion around the government’s handling of the claims against Alex Salmond. He may even have landed his wife in it. 

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[See also: Why SNP chief executive Peter Murrell is facing an internal revolt​

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Sturgeon has insisted a meeting with Salmond at her home shortly after the accusations of sexual assault first emerged went unminuted because it was held under her role as leader of the SNP rather than as First Minister. Murrell said Sturgeon had refused to tell him anything about the meeting because it was government rather than party business. This opens her to charges of having broken the ministerial code, which in theory could be a resigning matter. Whoops. 

Having previously claimed he was out when the meeting took place, Murrell admitted he had come home while it was still going on. He’d said hello to Salmond’s aides, who were waiting in the living room, before he “went upstairs, had a shower and got changed, and by the time I’d done that the meeting had ended and they’d left”.

MSPs on the committee expressed incredulity that the couple had not then discussed the conversation with Salmond and the extraordinary allegations facing the former first minister. Following Murrell’s appearance they variously described his performance as “squirming”, “shambolic” and “sleekit”, and announced plans to recall him.

It all adds to the air of chaos that currently surrounds the SNP – its inner workings are a mess and there is a major strain on its once-famous unity. At the party’s annual conference in November, a group of Sturgeon-sceptics were elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC), leading to speculation that the First Minister is losing control. They included Joanna Cherry, the Salmond-supporting MP who has repeatedly clashed with Sturgeon. The controversial former diplomat Craig Murray received an unexpectedly high one in four votes for the SNP presidency, though he was beaten by retiring Scottish cabinet minister and Sturgeon loyalist Mike Russell. It all suggests rising activist unease at the way the leadership is running the SNP and the independence campaign.

The critics have a variety of complaints. Cherry believes party democracy is poor, is calling for a rethink on liberalising gender recognition laws, and wants a Plan B for independence in the event Boris Johnson refuses to sanction a second referendum. There is unhappiness at the treatment of Salmond. Others are pushing for a more radical policy platform for independence, including the quick adoption of a separate Scottish currency, or a Catalonia-style illegal vote. 

Allies of Sturgeon argue the rebellion is overhyped, and that loyalists still outnumber critics on the NEC. The majority of activists do not want to “rock the boat”, they say, and point out that all MSPs who are standing again for Holyrood in May have been reselected to fight their seats. They also say that the NEC plays a significantly less important role than its Labour equivalent.

“The membership as a whole are much less interested in factionalism than people like Cherry,” says one senior source. “There are disgruntled parts of the SNP that read Wings Over Scotland [an aggressive, pro-independence website] and Craig Murray’s blog, or are very agitated about the Gender Recognition Act, or are very excited about Plan B for independence, or about moving to a separate Scottish currency as quickly as possible. Sometimes the causes overlap, but there simply aren’t that many of these people.

“And anyway, what does the NEC do? It doesn’t set policy or decide the party’s constitution. It’s a mundane, administrative body that looks after the rules around candidate selection, which have anyway already been decided for next year’s election. Some of them are going to be disappointed when they turn up to the NEC meeting without having read the rule book, and are greeted by the reality.”

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon: Britain’s most powerful woman​

For all their current troubles, the Nats remain out of sight in the polls and are on course to win an overall majority in May’s Scottish election, which they claim will give them the mandate for a second referendum. And public trust in Sturgeon is sky high, certainly when she is compared to Johnson. To outsiders, therefore, it seems baffling that a civil war is breaking out just as the nationalist dream is within touching distance, and that Sturgeon is being deliberately undermined despite her public popularity and pre-eminence.

But even her supporters express doubts about the way she is managing the independence campaign. They worry she has been so absorbed by Covid-19 that the party’s founding purpose has been relegated, and that this has created much of the current turbulence.

“The SNP membership abhor a vacuum on the big question,” says a party insider. “There are entryist leftists constantly banging on on social media. Then there are populists who are playing to the crowd. Salmond is working them to a greater or lesser extent – it’s hard to tell the level of his involvement, but it’s there. Ironically, in pushing for a harder, more fundamentalist line on indy, these people are trying to force Nicola to do what Alex used to abhor – he was a convinced gradualist until, for personal reasons, it suited him not to be.”

Despite the SNP’s poll ratings, internal morale is low, says the insider. “There’s massive residual loyalty to Alex and a sense that he has been wronged. This is a surprisingly widespread view, even among people who are loyal to the government.

“And why the unnecessary vacuum on independence? Even if Nicola has been managing Covid, what has the deputy leader been doing? What has HQ been doing? We’re polling at nearly 60 per cent and yet internally it feels like we’re in the 20s. We need a reset.”

The rebels are thriving in the absence of a serious plan from the leadership. They are pushing for the adoption of a much more confrontational stance – there have even been hints of civil disobedience – seemingly regardless of the impact this might have on undecided voters.

Few see Sturgeon as likely to lose her job for a while yet, though few think Murrell can last much longer. But the growth of internal factions suggests that when or if a referendum comes, the Yes campaign could be divided and messy. Perhaps even unmanageable.

“The rebels should know that if we approach Indyref2 in the same way Brexiteers approached their referendum it will scare away potential voters. It’s as simple as that,” says a source. “We have to stay the course. This has been a decades-long fight. We can’t run out of patience now.”

[See also: Why an SNP split would be dangerous for the independence movement]