(CN) — Former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is facing fresh questions over the reasons for her recent shock resignation, following the arrest of her husband earlier this week.
The national police force, Police Scotland, arrested Peter Murrell and searched their family home on Wednesday, in a significant escalation of an ongoing probe into the finances of Scotland’s ruling party, the Scottish National Party. Murrell was the chief executive of the party until last month, making him responsible for the SNP’s accounts.
Dramatic scenes saw police officers cordon off Sturgeon and Murrell’s house outside Glasgow and erect a tent in the garden – seemingly to dig for evidence. Police were also seen removing evidence from the SNP’s party headquarters in Edinburgh. Murrell was taken into police custody for questioning by detectives, and later released without charge.
Sturgeon herself is not currently a suspect in the investigation. But the question of how much prior warning she had about how the case would develop has inevitably arisen, given the sudden nature of her resignation back in February, after 16 years at the top of Scottish politics.
At an impromptu press conference in February, Sturgeon cited the reasons for resignation as exhaustion after the pandemic, a belief that her longevity in the role was no longer a strength, and a need for her party to take a fresh approach. At the time, Sturgeon’s resignation was unexpected and left no succession plan in place – which had seemed unusual given the normally slick political operation she was known to run.
The resignation prompted a bitter leadership contest which exposed deep internal divisions and severely dented the party’s reputation and polling. The contest was won by Sturgeon ally Humza Yousaf, who narrowly triumphed over Sturgeon critic Kate Forbes.
On Wednesday, Yousaf told the BBC: “I believe Nicola Sturgeon absolutely that she had taken the party as far forward as she possibly could. I think anybody who had seen Nicola through the Covid pandemic would sympathize with just how exhausted she was.”
Yousaf rejected suggestions that Police Scotland had coordinated the timing of the arrest with the SNP, given it took place just a day after Sturgeon formally stood down from her position as first minister.
The investigation centers around alleged missing funds had been raised in response to the Brexit referendum in 2016. The SNP launched a renewed push for Scottish independence following the vote, arguing that an independent Scotland would not have to leave the European Union.
The party began an accompanying crowdfunding campaign, requesting 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) in donations from the public to fund a second referendum campaign in the future. It raised more than 600,000 pounds ($745,000) in total. After disappointing results in the 2017 general election, however, the push for a second referendum was deprioritized by Sturgeon, and the fundraising campaign postponed.
In October 2020, the SNP publicly revealed that it had only 97,000 pounds ($120,000) in reserve, sparking questions about the location of the money previously raised. At the time, Sturgeon assured reporters that there were no missing funds, and that SNP finances were independently audited.
It was later revealed that a substantial loan from Murrell to the SNP had not been properly declared, and the party declined to comment on whether the loan was linked to the allegedly missing funds. Shortly before her resignation, Sturgeon publicly insisted that her husband’s finances were a matter for him, and not her.
Murrell himself was forced to resign from his position as chief executive, which he had held for almost 25 years, just two weeks ago amid internal dissent over a failure to accurately report membership data. The data ultimately revealed that the size of the party’s membership had fallen significantly in recent years.
The police investigation into the SNP’s finances has been rumbling on for some time, and some commentators speculated that it may have been a factor in Sturgeon's stepping down. In a short statement this week, a spokesperson for Sturgeon said, “It would not be appropriate to comment on a live police investigation. Nicola Sturgeon had no prior knowledge of Police Scotland's action or intentions. Ms. Sturgeon will fully cooperate with Police Scotland if required however at this time no such request has been made.”
The SNP was plunged into further crisis on Friday, after it was revealed that the party’s independent auditor – the firm Johnston Carmichael – has parted ways with the SNP.
The scandal tops off what has been a disastrous start to 2023 for a political party that has long appeared unassailable in Scotland. First elected to government in 2007, the SNP has secured multiple landslide election results in Scotland since, dominating the most recent round of elections in 2021 even after 14 years in government.
However, since the United Kingdom Supreme Court blocked the Scottish government’s attempt to hold an independence referendum last November, momentum behind the push for secession has stalled. The party then became embroiled in a damaging row over proposed transgender legislation, which was later vetoed in an unprecedented move by the British government.
Sturgeon’s sudden resignation subsequently plunged the party into factionalism of a kind it has not experienced in years, with rival leadership candidates strongly criticizing each other in public. The winning candidate and new first minister, Yousaf, had barely entered office before the dramatic police intervention in the fundraising scandal.
The result has been a steep decline in the SNP’s polling performance. Recent polls have put the party just 7 percentage points ahead of Scottish Labour – its smallest lead in polling since the 2014 independence referendum, and in contrast to a 26% lead over Labour just last December.
The sudden turn of events will be music to the ears of unionists, with Scotland’s future as part of the U.K. having appeared shaky for several years. To a significant extent, the popularity of independence remains tied to the political performance of the SNP in Scotland. As such, the party’s ultimate goal now feels as though it is retreating into the distance – and at pace.
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