There’s No Coming Back From the SNP Crisis

The police investigation is the very least of it.

by Jonathon Shafi

11 April 2023

Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf and former first minister Nicola Sturgeon. Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Where to start with the crisis engulfing the SNP? It’s a good question, since the divisions, strategic dilemmas and the very public police investigation into the actions of the party’s erstwhile chief executive represent multidimensional political entanglements. In an unusual outbreak of reflection, it’s little wonder that SNP president Michael Russell has called the ensuing calamity the deepest crisis facing the SNP for 50 years

For discerning observers, none of this is altogether surprising. In this column, I’ve highlighted the incredibly weak foundations bequeathed to the new SNP leader and first minister Humza Yousaf from the outgoing leadership team. At the tail end of last year, I also speculated that Nicola Sturgeon was heading towards the exit door. And that’s all before the events of recent days.

Without commenting on the details or potential outcomes of the live police investigation, it’s worth reviewing the facts. On 5 April, Peter Murrell, former SNP chief executive and husband of Nicola Sturgeon, was taken into police custody. An evidence tent was erected outside their home as officers sealed off the area with ticker tape. The SNP Edinburgh headquarters were raided, with several bags of materials removed. The police are probing high-value transactions including vehicle purchases by the party. Douglas Chapman, the SNP MP who stepped down as party treasurer, has also spoken to the police. Sturgeon has been forced to abandon public appearances, and has released a statement in which she says she had “no prior knowledge of Police Scotland’s action or intentions”.

It doesn’t get much more dramatic than this. And these aren’t just matters which affect the SNP, either. Such is the dominance of the party that wider questions may arise around public trust in institutions. 

The history of the modern SNP appears to be speeding up. Many expected Sturgeon to resign in the coming period, but not via a hastily arranged press conference in February 2023. Deputy first minister John Swinney, universally respected among SNP members, has also resigned. As, of course, did the chief executive, after a row over membership numbers. This also precipitated the resignation of the SNP media manager Murray Foote, who said he issued those statistics to the press in “good faith.” The most influential special advisor to the party leadership, Liz Lloyd, was another to quit the Scottish government – though not before a story broke that she had aided Yousaf’s leadership bid.

While Yousaf won the contest, he did so by a slim margin. In the first round of voting, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan’s combined total outweighed that of the “continuity candidate”. Unable to win a majority of members’ first preference votes, the first Muslim SNP leader and Scottish first minister won 52.1% after votes were redistributed from the third-placed contestant, Regan. That’s a fine margin considering Forbes’ views on equal marriage and more obviously rightwing approach to economics. The party is more restless now than at any time over the last three decades, and substantial divisions are beginning to find more organised expressions. The abrupt hollowing-out of the previously hegemonic leadership has left the party reeling, and without a coherent centre to impose discipline and direction.

Even now, despite the police investigation, Yousaf and the wider social layers known for their loyalty to Sturgeon are unable to break with the old leadership. The party, flanked by a fragmented independence movement, dilapidated by repeated false dawns and empty promises around “indyref2,” must now confront multiple interlocking challenges. Crucially, it must find an agenda when it comes to domestic policy – the subject of broad criticism. The Scottish government’s organising principle has been to outsource important initiatives to private consultancy groups and to prioritise the needs of foreign capital. This has included stripping back the meaning from independence by committing to an indefinite period of ‘sterlingisaton’ (whereby the Bank of England would control monetary policy even after ‘Independence Day’).

Lacking a route to a new independence referendum; missing an inspirational programme and the required campaign infrastructure to take it to the population; Sturgeon’s resignation and its fallout; a legacy of failed policy directives; a whole can of worms opening up internally while a police investigation into SNP finances takes place. Taken together, it’s unsurprising that belief in the SNP being able to deliver on its core objective is waning, and matters are starting to make an impact in the polls. While support for independence remains steady, we can expect the SNP’s electoral dominance to slide. One model even puts Labour winning more seats in next year’s general election – although it’s unclear that Scots, especially those who voted Yes in 2014, are prepared to back the party with any great enthusiasm, if at all.

In the coming years, then, the antipathy towards the political class we see across Europe may take root in Scotland, where it’s been somewhat deferred as the national question offered an alternative channel through which to vent frustrations. One thing is for certain: the period in which the SNP enjoyed unrivalled political power, an organic internal discipline and the semblance of a united forward march to independence is definitively over.

Jonathon Shafi is a columnist for Novara Media and socialist campaigner, based in Glasgow. He writes the weekly newsletter ‘Independence Captured’.

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