The SNP’s problems only seem to go from bad to worse, with the party now caught up in a police investigation surrounding former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell. In a matter of months, the political authority of Scotland’s once-unassailable governing party has plummeted.
Mr Murrell – notably the husband of ex-SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – was recently arrested for questioning, before being released without charge on 5 April.
Police Scotland have been investigating Murrell and the SNP’s finances for two years, over allegations of misappropriation of funds.
The substance of the allegations concerns over £600,000 raised by the SNP via various independence ‘campaigns’, which has apparently gone missing.
In reality, these fundraising efforts were almost exclusively for party purposes, with only a thin veneer of any legitimate nonpartisan aims.
The questions are: If this money has not been spent purely on pro-independence campaigning, is it fraudulent? And separately, what has the money actually been spent on, and by whom?
Scandal and suspicion
As part of the police’s investigations, over several days, Murrell and Sturgeon’s home was searched, and the SNP headquarters were raided.
Brand-new First Minister and SNP leader Humza Yousaf has seen his party knocked into a tailspin by these latest developments, following an already-tense leadership election.
During the recent contest, Murrell was caught attempting to lie about the SNP’s membership figure, concealing the party’s dramatic decline over the past three years. He resigned following this scandal, which brought the party bureaucracy that he led into disrepute.
All manner of suspicion has been thrown up by this sudden turn of events. Some had drawn a connection between Sturgeon’s surprise departure and the investigation into her husband. But this appeared tenuous, owing to the fact there had been little development in the case since it began in July 2021.
Nonetheless, in questions from the press following her resignation speech, Sturgeon was asked about the ongoing probe, but she refused to comment. This is all she has said about the matter so far, besides characteristically seeking public sympathy by describing the ‘traumatic’ police search of her home.
The search itself appeared farcical, with dozens of uniformed constables loitering outside with white vans and forensic tents, and the sight of digging tools even being carried onto the property. It looked like the site of a high-profile murder investigation, rather than of whitest-of-white-collar financial malfeasance.
Crimes and cover-ups
The question then arose: is this all for show? Social media was awash with scepticism towards the whole saga.
This has given rise to opposing theories. On the one hand, there are those who suspect political interference from the Tory government. And on the other, there are some who allege a botched coverup of high-level corruption within the SNP and Scottish government.
One does not have to go to the extremes of conspiracy to see some truth here, however. The timing of Murrell’s arrest has certainly had the effect of kicking the SNP while it is down, and has come after two years of investigation.
Strangely, the probe is thought to have begun after Police Scotland credulously followed up on complaints submitted by a handful of cranks associated with the fringe ‘Scottish Resistance’ group.
It is not clear exactly what crime may have been committed, if any. Political party finances are in fact not so transparent. And the SNP’s defence – that any money they spend is de facto in support of independence – is not at all illogical. We can be sure that politicians and campaign managers have gotten away with worse in the past.
On the other hand, while Murrell may be ‘not guilty’, it would be a stretch to say that he is entirely innocent. There most certainly is something dodgy about the SNP’s finances, the party’s machine-like bureaucracy, the relationship between it and the Scottish government’s operations, and more. Even Humza Yousaf has been forced to confess this, and has ordered a review.
Shortly after Murrell’s arrest it was revealed that the company that audited the SNP’s accounts had quit. News headlines implied this was directly related to the arrest, when in fact it happened six months ago.
In addition, SNP national treasurer Douglas Chapman quit his role in May 2021 after claiming that financial information was being kept from him, preventing transparent management of the party coffers.
Police have also seized documents and assets from the party – including a £110,000 luxury motorhome purchased some time in 2020. This had been sitting outside the home of Peter Murrell’s 92-year-old mother since January 2021, never used for its intended purpose of election campaigning. This ‘battle bus’ may never have entered the field, but Murrell and Sturgeon potentially made personal use of it.
Questions over the whole case still abound. Is there a bigger bust coming? Or was this a last throw of the dice?
Either way, two things are clear: the SNP is facing its worst crisis in over 40 years; and the Scottish government is firmly mired in the murky swamp of bourgeois politics.
Some have become accustomed to thinking of Holyrood as being more open, transparent, and ‘democratic’ than dirty old Westminster. The truth, however, is that the Scottish Parliament and Bute House are as much a part of the bourgeois state as any other establishment institution.
Shady dealings, conflicts of interest, and informal power networks operate in these Scottish corridors, just as they do in any capitalist political setup – where the ultimate authority is money, and corruption is a professional art.
After more than a decade in power, the bubble is finally bursting for the SNP. And the clique that ran the party with an iron hand over the past twenty years is now retiring under a dark cloud.
Humza Yousaf, of course, is desperate for even a single ray of light. But all that he has left in his arsenal is another drawn-out legal battle with the Tories over their undemocratic veto of the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Act.
Yousaf’s primary concern, however, is not the defence of Scotland’s democratic rights, or the rights of transgender people. Instead, the new SNP leader’s aim is to use the GRR debate to stir up the antagonism with Westminster and distract from his own problems.
This standoff will almost certainly end up in the UK Supreme Court – the same place where Nicola Sturgeon’s failed strategy regarding a second independence referendum reached a dead-end.
This was the beginning of the end for Sturgeon. Yousaf, however, has denied that a further loss in the courts would provoke his resignation.
In any case, the damage has already been done when it comes to the Scottish government’s preferred image of ‘openness’ and ‘progress’.
Consequently, they will have little to shield themselves from the coming storms and stresses in the period ahead, when the country will be dragged through deep economic and social crises, and the SNP leaders will increasingly be viewed as yet another venal political elite.