When Humza Yousaf won the SNP leadership contest just two weeks ago, I wrote in my column a list of the problems the party and the new first minister was facing, from NHS waiting times to delayed ferries.
I finished the article by pointing out: “Meanwhile, over at SNP headquarters, a police investigation into financial irregularities continues.” Little did I realise then how quickly and sensationally the issue would transform Scottish politics.
As everyone now knows, Operation Branchform – an investigation into what happened to over £600,000 of party member donations supposedly “ring-fenced” for the next independence referendum – had been ongoing since July 2021, but came to a climax last Wednesday, with the arrest of former party chief executive and husband of Nicola Sturgeon, Peter Murrell.
The arrest made headline news, not just in Scotland but around the world, such is the former first minister’s fame. After 11 hours of questioning, Mr Murrell was released without charge, “pending further investigation”. So the matter is certainly not closed.
Apart from the actual police investigation, a number of serious political questions remain to be answered. Is it really tenable that Nicola Sturgeon knew nothing about the issue of the missing £600,000? Was this never discussed over the breakfast table?
She also claims to have known nothing about the £107,000 which her husband loaned the party to help with cash flow problems. If I loaned someone more than a tenner, my wife would ask me about it. But Peter never mentioned a loan of over £100,000 to his wife?
Were no red flags raised when elected party treasurer Douglas Chapman resigned, claiming that he had been refused access to information he required to do his job? Now, the party auditors have also quit.
Then there’s the matter of timing. How is it possible that, after almost two years of an investigation, the arrest was made immediately after the party’s specially shortened leadership contest? Coincidence?
Many observers have commented that had this arrest happened just a few weeks previously, the outcome of the leadership vote might have been very different. Humza Yousaf, remember, was the continuity candidate – the chosen candidate of the SNP leadership: a leadership headed by Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell. Was any political pressure put on the police to wait until the contest was over before making an arrest?
Then there’s the timing of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. Was she warned in advance that her husband might soon be arrested? Did this precipitate her unexpected announcement?
Questions are also being asked about the police action itself. Does a relatively (in the great scheme of serious crime) minor fraud investigation warrant the number of officers, vehicles and equipment deployed both at Murrell’s home and at SNP headquarters? Is there more going on than a simple fraud investigation?
Should the Crown Office and the government go their separate ways?
For the time being, all we hear are denials. No one knows anything, all the main participants claim. Yet, the police operate under the direction of the Crown Office. Heading the Crown Office are the lord advocate and the solicitor general.
I don’t know if things have changed since I was a government special adviser but, when I was, the lord advocate and the solicitor general sat in on cabinet alongside the first minister and the rest of the senior members of government. Both are political appointees, put in place by the first minister, and assurances that they take no part in investigations which involve senior politicians will never satisfy the general public.
Over the years, there have been calls for these roles to be taken out of politics altogether. Given the events of the past week, this surely has to happen now.
Most of the main political players claim that last week came as a shock. Yet, everyone involved in Scottish politics knew about the investigation, and what the allegations were. It was the talk of the media tower at Holyrood for months. But no senior SNP politicians, officials, or special advisers were aware or concerned?
I feel sorry for Humza Yousaf. I believe he is an honourable man and was already set to face a number of serious political issues in his new job. This is an additional problem he could certainly have done without.
Back in 2014, when Alex Salmond handed over the reins of power to Nicola Sturgeon, he told her that a situation where she was first minister and her husband was chief executive of the party was not sustainable. She rejected his advice nine years ago. I wonder if she regrets that decision today.
Campbell Gunn is a retired political editor who served as special adviser to two first ministers of Scotland, and a Munro compleatist