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Chris Deerin: Sturgeon has her faults but is far from corrupt

The former first minister's arrest comes at an unfortunate time where both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are facing their own allegations of law-breaking.

Nicola Sturgeon was released without charge after being questioned over SNP's missing fund furore.
Nicola Sturgeon was released without charge after being questioned over SNP's missing fund furore.

This might seem a strange, if not ill-advised moment to mount a defence of Nicola Sturgeon.

The former first minister is once again in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, after spending much of Sunday under arrest and in a police interview room.

It’s unclear as yet what the outcome of Operation Branchform will be. But the investigation into what has happened to £600,000 raised by the SNP to fund a future referendum campaign has so far seen Sturgeon, Peter Murrell, her husband and the party’s former chief executive, and ex-treasurer Colin Beattie arrested and released without charge, pending further inquiries.

There has been eye-catching footage of boxes of documents being taken by officers from Sturgeon’s home and from SNP HQ and news of a luxury campervan seized from the driveway of Murrell’s mother. Even more colourful rumours abound.

These are torrid and embarrassing times for Scotland’s governing party after years of dominance and self-declared virtue.

Events are taking a heavy toll on new First Minister Humza Yousaf and the SNP’s once stratospheric poll ratings. Scottish Labour, especially, is benefiting from the chaos.

To state the obvious, this was not how Sturgeon saw her post-Bute House life going.

Given her status as a poster girl for progressives, there had been much gossip about a possible job at the UN or some other international organisation, perhaps relating to climate change or the fight against poverty. This seems a somewhat unlikely destination in current circumstances.

It is Sturgeon’s further misfortune that her arrest came on the heels of Boris Johnson’s resignation as an MP when he learned a Commons investigation into partygate had found he misled parliament and would recommend a lengthy suspension.

This itself coincided with the revelation that Donald Trump, who is again running for the US presidency, is likely to face his second arrest in three months over the retention of confidential national security documents after leaving the White House.

It’s some company to find yourself in, and Sturgeon’s fiercest critics are making hay with the timing.

The three do indeed have a few things in common. Each is a formidable campaigner but proved less successful at the difficult business of government.

Each has been sustained by a hardcore of supporters who still believe they can do no wrong.

Each has flirted with populism and nationalism to a greater or lesser extent. And each has left their party in a horrible mess – Yousaf has spent much of his time unpicking the policy errors made by Sturgeon in her controversial final months.

Johnson and Trump and clearly wrong ‘uns

But we should be careful.

Johnson and Trump are clearly wrong ‘uns and had been identified as such long before they moved into politics.

But whatever you may say about Sturgeon, this is not who she is.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting US President Donald Trump for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

I take issue with many of her political beliefs and actions – her unabashed certainty that independence is the cure for everything that ails Scotland, her gender reforms, her lack of interest in a thriving private sector and the central importance of wealth creation, to name just a few.

The decision to take the extremist Greens into government has proved disastrous. Her choice of Yousaf as a hand-picked successor was unwise.

Ultimately, her record in office is thin, despite eight years in the job and the huge popularity she enjoyed throughout.

But these are political rather than personal differences. I’ve never doubted Sturgeon’s probity, or that she entered politics for wholly commendable reasons.

I felt no shame at her representing Scotland on the global stage, as I did when Johnson shuffled up to meet world leaders as UK prime minister. She was a reassuring, hard-working and principled presence during the Covid crisis.

You could sense Sturgeon’s pain and mortification in the statement issued after she was released by police on Sunday evening.

“To find myself in the situation I did today when I am certain I have committed no offence is both a shock and deeply distressing,” she said, adding that “I would never do anything to harm either the SNP or the country.”

The taint hanging over her integrity must be close to unbearable.

Sturgeon is not the greedy or acquisitive type

For what it’s worth, I believe her. She’s transparently not the greedy or acquisitive type.

She has always seemed unlikely, for example, to cash in on her political celebrity, as other ex-leaders have done – in that regard, she is more of a hairshirt Gordon Brown figure than a money-grubbing Johnson.

I am more than happy to criticise what I regard as her flaws: the high-handedness and disdain for opposing views, the retreat into a bunker mentality with a small clique, and the obsession with securing a second independence referendum above competent and meaningful governance of the nation.

There are plenty of people in the SNP who make similar points.

However, I just can’t buy any suggestion that Sturgeon is corrupt, that she ran the SNP as a vehicle for personal advancement or the accumulation of riches, or that she would blithely trample across the rules and the legalities. It fails the sniff test.

Perhaps, in time, Operation Branchform will make this column look foolish and naive. We shall see.

Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank, Reform Scotland