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  1. The Staggers
25 April 2023

Whatever the police conclude, the damage to the SNP has already been done

It’s quite something that the only two SNP first ministers in history have both found themselves caught up in criminal investigations.

By Chris Deerin

A big blue tent and scene-of-crime tape in the former first minister’s garden, boxes of evidence taken from her house and from SNP HQ, a luxury motorhome removed from her mother-in-law’s driveway, and now a hunt for burner phones – all this story seems to lack is a Cadillac of heavily armed, gold-toothed Colombians who want their money and want it now.

Scotland has been agog for weeks as its ruling party has collapsed into scandal. High-profile public figures have been arrested and taken in for questioning. Each leaked detail of the latest police lead is more theatrical than the last. We wait with bated breath to find out whether Nicola Sturgeon will become the latest and the biggest of the bigwigs to be lifted.

It’s early days, however the farrago looks to have all but destroyed the prospect of Humza Yousaf making a success of his leadership. It’s possible – perhaps probable – that he would have failed anyway, given his personal limitations, underwhelming cabinet and bland policy agenda. But even a more talented politician would struggle to find a way through all this fire and smoke. No one’s much interested in anything Yousaf wants to do or has to say, unless it’s mildly comedic: denying the SNP is being run in a “criminal way”; insisting he is always “surprised when one of my colleagues is arrested”. Whatever the opposite of a silver tongue is, the new First Minister has it. He is giving us a lively, ongoing commentary, when he really should shut up.

Given the scale and drama of the police investigation, we can only imagine what any eventual charges might look like and what grounds they might cover. It seems unlikely that all this effort is simply to establish that the Nats spent money raised for an independence referendum on election campaigns instead. What odds on my Colombians?

There is another possible outcome, and it would scarcely be less incendiary: what if, at the end, no one is charged with anything? Such was the scenario outlined to me by a senior SNP politician recently – one who is the very opposite of a conspiracy-minded headbanger.

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He posited that the high visibility of the investigation was a calculated step, designed to assert the independence of Police Scotland from the government. Since the force was centralised by the SNP in 2013 it has faced accusations of politicisation, while the role of the chief constable has often been a controversial one. If it was to investigate the very party that birthed it, the argument goes, it would have to do so aggressively to avoid allegations of special favours.

This might seem far-fetched, but my confidante was angry at how the whole affair has been handled. “If this all ultimately amounts to nothing then the police will have hell to pay,” he said. It’s certainly quite something that the only two SNP first ministers in the history of devolution have both found themselves caught up in criminal investigations.

Events will take their course. But with the SNP falling in the polls and Yousaf’s popularity ratings cratering, the political damage may already have been done, and be irreversible.

[See also: Scotland deserves better than the parliament it has]

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