Is this how the dream of Scottish independence ends, not at the ballot box in a crushing once-in-a-generation defeat, but driven over a cliff in a luxury motorhome by the senior figures of the Scottish Nationalist Party.
For the SNP, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. It was meant to be idealistic; that politics north of the border with England was cleaner, greener, more caring, more for sharing.
Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon — for so long the very face and embodiment of what it meant to be free, the real William Wallace of our time — was arrested on Sunday morning at her Glasgow-area home and questioned for more than seven hours by police.
Sure, she was released without charge and issued a statement that said she “knows beyond doubt she is innocent” in the probe by Police Scotland in an investigation into the SNP finances. That probe, ‘Operation Branchform’ — who comes up with these names anyway? — might just as well be called ‘Operation Kill Off Anything and Everything to Do With Sovereignty’ for, in essence, it has done what a defeat in a referendum could not.
Pending further investigation
For now, it seems, Scottish independence is on life support. If a party can’t run itself, how can it run a country. And if you can’t trust the leaders, how can you trust them when you’re out on your own, charting a new course in national and world affairs.
Sturgeon’s arrest is the third in the police investigation into how £600,000 (Dh2.8 million) of SNP campaign funds were spent.
On April 5, her husband and the party’s former chief executive Peter Murrell was arrested as officers carried out searches at a number of properties including the SNP Headquarters in Edinburgh.
He was released without charge after hours of questioning, “pending further investigation” Police Scotland said at the time.
Days later, the party’s treasurer Colin Beattie — a sitting member of the SNP government in Holyrood — was taken into custody and questioned, He too was released pending more police investigations.
But Sturgeon’s arrest has raised the stakes to the highest level for the party. It is the bombshell that the party knew was coming. With the earlier arrests, it always seemed as if the probe was narrowing all the time. Sturgeon’s arrest and questioning — forget about her release for the damage is done — is nothing short of seismic.
For as long as she was the public face of the party, its Governments, its case for independence, its common sense and pragmatism during the Covid pandemic, its cold logic when all seemed to be going off the rails in London and at Westminster, Sturgeon ruled as the velvet face with an iron fist.
But since her shock resignation earlier this year left questions. People at the centre of power don’t simply walk away. Social media leaks showed the First Minister rubbishing suggestions all was not well with the SNP’s finances, that everything was fine.
Well, three arrests later and with Operation Branchform detectives still on the case of that missing £600,000, everything clearly isn’t ‘fine’.
The damage has been done
The ex-SNP leader, 52, reiterated her belief she had “committed no offence” and vowed to return to parliament in the coming days after being questioned by those detectives.
But the damage has been done. The genie is out of the bottle. The horse has bolted. Already senior figures in the parliament in Edinburgh are saying she should be suspended and kept as far away as possible from the legislature in Holyrood.
Part of the mystery of those missing funds centres on a luxury motorhome, supposedly a campaign bus, more probably a perk purchased with party funds as police suspect. A £100,000 motorhome was seized from outside the home of Sturgeon’s mother-in-law in Dunfermline.
Now, Hamza Yousef, Scotland’s new First Minister, faces even more questions about the party he leads, how it governs itself, and how he can’t possibly govern Scotland.
He said he was unaware the party had purchased a motorhome until he became party leader, and was unaware too that the party’s long standing auditors, Johnston Carmichael, had quit last September until he became party leader. The party risked being fined for being able to provide duly audited accounts — not the best optics in the world for a party that likely lost the 2014 referendum vote on how Scotland would be able to finance its independence. Quite poorly, the answer seems now, given all of the shenanigans that police are sniffing around.
That file is being sent to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, those responsible for determining whether there is a criminal case to answer in court.
Frankly, it doesn’t seem to matter if there is, for the damage has well and truly been done.
With a general election due in the UK sometime over the next year or so, the opposition Labour Party is relishing the prospect of taking on the SNP at the ballot box. Pretty much since the turn of the millennium, Labour has lost out to the left-wing SNP time and time again. Now it just seems that time has run out for the nationalists, their cause driven away into the sunset.