Nicola Sturgeon Arrested – The Latest in Operation Branchform
Callum Martin, Features Editor, recaps the SNP finances scandal and considers its impact on British politics.
Ah, Summer. The season for sunshine, ice cream, and of course, serious investigations into former world leaders. Donald Trump faces indictments in two states, Boris Johnson has been found by his own committee to have lied to Parliament, and now ex-First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been arrested by Police Scotland.
In the most recent development of the dramatic SNP financial scandal, Mrs Sturgeon spent seven hours of Sunday 11 June under police questioning before being released without charge. The arrest comes as the latest action taken as part of Operation Branchform – a police inquiry set up in July 2021 to investigate alleged financial misconduct at the highest levels of the Scottish National Party – specifically the misuse of £667,000 in party donations.
The entire saga has been remarkable – the hundreds of thousands in missing cash, lies over party membership figures, a string of high-profile resignations, and, bizarrely, a luxury motorhome on an old lady’s front drive. So where did it all begin? Where will it go from here? And what impact will the scandal have not just for Scotland, but the entire United Kingdom?
As the leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon has dominated Scottish politics for nearly a decade, leading her party to four straight election victories. The constant throughline of her leadership was a devotion to Scottish independence, and a commitment to holding another vote, after the failure of the 2014 referendum. In 2019, the party appealed to its members for donations to fund a campaign for the so-called ‘indyref2’ – a plea that raised £667,000.
Despite this huge donation sum, SNP accounts published soon after claimed that the party had less than £100,000 in its account, and total net assets around £270,000. This was first publicly highlighted in October 2020, when pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell published an article for his website entitled ‘You’ve Been Robbed’, urging donors to ask the SNP what happened to their donations.
No official complaint regarding party finances is made until March 2021, around the time when three members of the SNP’s NEC committee (responsible for auditing and financial matters) resign after being denied access to party accounts. At the time of these resignations, Mrs Sturgeon is recorded telling the committee that the party ‘had never been in a stronger financial position’ and urging against going public with concerns due to the potentially negative impact on future donations.
Two months later, the party is shaken by a pair of high-profile resignations – treasurer Douglas Chapman and another NEC committee member Joanna Cherry leave, both citing a lack of financial transparency as the reason behind their departure.
In September 2022, the party’s accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael resign its role after a decade-long partnership, although this split does not become public knowledge for seven months.
Fast forward to February this year, and Nicola Sturgeon shocks the nation by announcing that she is stepping down as leader of the SNP. She claims her resignation is the result of political burnout and fatigue. However, many suspect a deeper reason, as in an interview only three weeks prior, Mrs Sturgeon was quoted saying she had ‘plenty left in the tank’ and was ‘nowhere near’ stepping back from frontline politics. At the time, some suspected she was really going due to her mishandling of the fierce transgender prisoner debate, but in the light of recent revelations, many believe that she saw an iceberg coming, and jumped overboard. It is a fact that, just days before Mrs Sturgeon stepped down, Operation Branchform was interviewing key witnesses (including Mr Chapman), although there is no way of knowing whether the then-leader had any knowledge of the investigation – and she strenuously denies any link between her resignation and the investigation.
Many believe that she saw an iceberg coming, and jumped overboard.
The Operation’s first arrest comes in April, when police bring in Peter Murrell, SNP chief executive since 1999, and also, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband of 13 years. Mr Murrell had resigned the previous month after admitting to misleading the media regarding party membership figures. Police interest in Mr Murrell largely revolved around a £110,000 luxury motorhome purchased by the party as a ‘campaign bus’, which, despite its title, had never been used for party-related purposes and has resided on the driveway of Mr Murrell’s 92-year-old mother for nearly two and a half years. The former chief executive was released without charge.
The arrest, release, and resignation of SNP treasurer Colin Beattie in April and the police search of Sturgeon and Murrell’s home in May round out the investigation up to Mrs Sturgeon’s arrest.
So, what does all this mean? Firstly, the SNP’s polling has unsurprisingly slumped. While technically no charges have yet been brought, the clear pattern of suspicious behaviour has led to public opinion largely in the ‘no-smoke-without-fire’ vein, and according to a recent YouGov poll, party popularity is at its lowest level since 2014. Another study suggests that 41% of SNP voters are less likely to vote for the party as a direct result of the investigation.
There is plenty of pressure on Scotland’s new First Minister Humza Yousaf to suspend Mrs Sturgeon’s party membership, not least because she herself had set a precedent of suspending any SNP politician who was under police investigation (see Patrick Grady or Margaret Ferrier). However, Yousaf seems to be throwing his full support behind his predecessor. He has recently come out to say that Sturgeon was ‘innocent of any wrongdoing’, as well as calling her ‘the most impressive politician in Europe’. This rhetoric is a clear attempt to unite his party, but could backfire if the former leader goes on to face more serious police action.
In Scotland, analysis of every major political development tends to be pretty cut-and-paste – “Does (insert event here) make independence more or less likely?” In regard to this question, one would presume less likely, but the devotion of the independence voters cannot be underestimated – their minds are difficult to change. The polls do not yet offer any clear answers. When it comes to independence, they rarely do.
It is easier to quantify the impact on wider British politics. With a general election on the horizon, tumbling SNP popularity creates a golden opportunity for Labour or the Tories to claw back some much-needed Scottish seats. In 2019, the SNP won 48 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland, with the Tories managing 6, and Labour only 1. Sir Keir Starmer will be especially interested in winning Scottish support, as despite being the favourites to take power next year, most electoral projections indicate Labour will fall just short of a parliamentary majority. Sky News predicts a 28-seat deficit. Hence, potentially winnable Scottish seats are highly valued – as seen by Sir Keir Starmer’s recent travel itinerary. While the Red leader made 3 trips north of the border in 2022, this year he has already managed 5, all since Mrs Sturgeon resigned in February.
With a general election on the horizon, tumbling SNP popularity creates a golden opportunity for Labour or the Tories to claw back some much-needed Scottish seats.
Clearly, as this investigation continues to unfold, it will have seismic political impacts. Watch this space.