Nicola Sturgeon Arrested
Three things we know as the former First Minister helps police with their enquiries.
After the forensic tent outside the Sturgeon home, the police raiding SNP HQ, the luxury motorhome being seized by police, and the hapless interviews by Humza Yousaf, today was the most sensational of the investigation into SNP finances.
Nicola Sturgeon is the first former FM or PM to be arrested in the history of the UK, since Alex Salmond. They are the first former or current leaders of a major party to be arrested since Jeremy Thorpe in the 1970s. She is the first SNP MSP to be arrested since Wednesday 19th April.
As with the Salmond scandal, which of course ended without any criminal conviction, this is about more than just the legal process. Nobody is guilty yet of anything, however, the politics of this are massively damaging for a party that has built its whole appeal on being morally superior to a corrupting English political class.
There will be so much noise over the next few hours, but for me, there are three important things to keep in mind today:
1. Cut the crap - this is why she resigned.
When Nicola Sturgeon resigned her reasons for walking away felt unconvincing. She tried to claim that the surprise announcement was because she couldn’t go for coffee with friends; or because she was envious of Jacinda Ardern; or, as she claimed on Loose Women, because she wanted “to have more time in this next phase of my life to find out who Nicola Sturgeon the person is."
Now that we can dispense with all this self-help book nonsense, it is clear the final question asked of Sturgeon as she gave her resignation press conference was the only question that mattered.
Before this investigation, Nicola Sturgeon had probably forgotten about the fundraising drive she launched. The internet remembers, though. Her smiling face dominates the now-deleted donation page and her video urging people to pledge their support for the referendum can still be viewed on a corner of the internet.
As the face of the fundraising drive, the leader of the party, a signatory of the accounts, and the wife of the Chief Executive, Nicola Sturgeon knew this day was coming. She wanted to define her departure on her own terms: to be able to say she stepped down, she didn’t jump, she wasn’t pushed. Like everything else in her time in office, her principal thought was about media management.
Despite her best efforts to spin her departure, after today every biography of Nicola Sturgeon will note that she resigned because of this looming scandal.
2. She cannot remain a SNP member.
Humza Yousaf’s current position is that neither Sturgeon, Murrell nor Beattie should be suspended from the party. That is a position that seems to be at odds with the feelings of the Scottish people, as shown in the Yougov poll below.
It is hard to see how Yousaf’s position can now hold, especially given the precedents set by Nicola Sturgeon herself that those facing investigation should either leave the SNP or be suspended from the party.
When Alex Salmond was under police investigation, Sturgeon backed his decision to resign his membership:
“I understand why he has chosen to separate the current questions he is facing from the day-to-day business of the SNP and the ongoing campaign for independence.”
When Derek Mackay faced reports of a possible police investigation into inappropriate behaviour Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament:
“…he has also been suspended from both the SNP and the Parliamentary Group pending further investigation."
When Natalie McGarry was under police investigation, Nicola Sturgeon was clear that it was right that she left the party:
"I would rather not be in a position where an MP has to stand aside temporarily in order to have an investigation, but I think that's the right thing to have done.”
When Michelle Thomson was facing questions around a police investigation of which she was not personally the focus, Sturgeon was unequivocal:
“Michelle Thomson is currently not a member of the SNP, because she decided, while the investigations are under way, to relinquish the party whip and, as a result of SNP rules, that means that her party membership is suspended. That was the right and responsible thing for her to do in the circumstances.”
How can Yousaf argue that the precedent set by his predecessor should not be applied to his predecessor? If Yousaf is now too weak to act, we should expect Nicola Sturgeon to follow her own principles and resign her membership immediately.
3. Sturgeon’s SNP didn’t want scrutiny of its finances.
We have no idea what the police are investigating and nobody has been charged with any crime. We do not even know if crimes have taken place. What we do know is that under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, the party did not welcome scrutiny of its finances.
In March 2021 Nicola Sturgeon tried to shut down questions about finances, as shown by the leaked video of a National Executive Council meeting:
“The party has never been in a stronger financial position than it is right now and that’s a reflection of our strength and our membership. So just a bit of context for us all to remember. I’m not going to get into the details that’s for Douglas [Chapman the SNP Treasurer who subsequently resigned] and of course, this body is the governing body of the party, but, you know, just be very careful, all of us, about suggestions that there are problems with the party’s finances, because we depend on donors to donate. There are no reasons for people to be concerned about the party’s finances, and all of us need to be careful about not suggesting that there is.”
On the same day, three members of SNP’s finance and audit committee quit over lack of transparency. In May 2021 Douglas Chapman then resigned citing a lack of financial transparency, soon followed by Joanna Cherry MP show who quit the NEC for the same reasons.
As concerns about finances grew, on 3 June, 2021 Sturgeon gave this interview to STV News:
“I’m not concerned about the party’s finances. The finances of the SNP are independently audited. Our accounts are sent to the Electoral Commission in common with other parties and of course published. So there’s full scrutiny around that…Money hasn’t gone missing. All money goes through the SNP accounts. Independently and fully audited. We don’t hold separate accounts. We’re under no legal requirement to do that. Our accounts are managed on a cash-flow basis. But every penny we raise to support the campaign for independence will be spent on the campaign for independence.”
Note the two sections of her statement in bold.
The then-First Minister said she was not concerned about the finances yet two weeks later £107,620 was loaned from her husband to the party in order to assist with cash flow problems. This loan was not declared to the Electoral Commission as it should have been.
Then there is Sturgeon’s statement that the party does not hold separate accounts. In 2017, the SNP said that “money raised on ref.scot is ringfenced for the purpose stated on the website”. An activist who asked for a refund of monies donated to the fund in March 2020 was reportedly told by the party’s head of compliance the money could not be handed back because “donations are in a ring-fenced fund to fight the next referendum whenever we are in a position to call that.”
In August 2021, with concerns about the party’s finances growing, and her husband’s loan to the party still undeclared, Nicola Sturgeon reportedly told the SNP Executive:
“We don’t need to talk about the finances. The finances are absolutely fine.”
Did Nicola Sturgeon know about that loan when she was seeking to close down discussions about party finances? We don’t know, because that is something else she has hardly been transparent about:
This trend of secrecy was not just a matter of concealing things from the SNP membership or the media. Those at the most senior level of the SNP were kept in the dark. The SNP’s President says he didn’t know the membership had plummeted. The SNP’s Deputy Leader says he didn’t know the party’s auditors had resigned months before until shortly before it was reported in the media. The SNP’s Westminster Leader says he didn’t know that the same auditors, who also act for the Commons Group’s finances, had also resigned from that role. Members of the SNP’s NEC didn’t know that the party owned a £100,000 motorhome.
Whatever the police investigation uncovers, and it may not uncover anything criminal, it is clear that under Sturgeon’s leadership, the SNP did not welcome scrutiny of its finances.