For around seven hours on Sunday 11 June, Nicola Sturgeon was questioned in police custody. The former first minister was arrested that morning and later released without charge, pending further investigation. This is the third arrest so far in the ongoing criminal investigation into the SNP’s finances. It follows those of the erstwhile chief executive Peter Murrell – who is also Sturgeon’s husband – and the former party treasurer Colin Beattie. A number of issues have been in the public domain, including the whereabouts of a supposedly “ring fenced” independence referendum fund totalling over £600,000. These are the most dramatic political events of the devolved era, coming as they do after the resignation of the once untouchable SNP leader and the terse internal election which elevated Humza Yousaf to first minister on the narrowest of margins.
Despite calls from some quarters urging the Glasgow Southside MSP to resign, Sturgeon remains in parliament and an SNP member. Yousaf has promoted a consistent position on all of the arrests, arguing that unless and until charges are made, the individuals concerned remain in good standing as far as the party is concerned. He states that the latest SNP leader to be arrested remains an “asset” and “the best politician in Europe”. Keith Brown, the SNP’s deputy leader, claimed the arrest was a formality to secure on the record interviews, but omitted that in the Police Scotland statement released on the day, Sturgeon is referred to as a suspect in a live investigation. He also, rather crudely, publicly declared that SNP MSPs had agreed to send “sympathy” flowers to the troubled ex-leader. Moreover, Yousaf has been blunt in his dealings with his MSPs: stand by Nicola, or quit the party.
In prioritising such misplaced loyalty, there’s been little attempt to insulate the SNP from the crisis. Prudence and humility certainly aren’t on display. Instead, should charges eventuate, the current leadership will have gravely undermined what credibility it has left. Observers of Scottish politics have commented on this being a very high-risk response to the explosive developments, which are being reported not just in Scotland, but across Europe. Gerry Hassan, a regular commentator in the Scottish press and supporter of independence, puts it in forthright terms: “The SNP has long become a court party and a post-democratic party. But now it has also become a party of fealty and blind loyalty to the fallen leader. That is not an edifying, attractive or sustainable politics.”
Momentum is building for the party, but in a calamitous direction. The once disciplined and united organisation, led by a quintessential “adult in the room,” is no more. Ill equipped to manage events, Yousaf isn’t just living up to the adage that he’s the “continuity candidate”, but far exceeding it. In doing so, he’s passing up the opportunity to forge his own leadership in favour of operating in the shadow of his predecessor and the hazardous baggage accumulated around her. For that, there will be consequences, regardless of how the police investigation concludes.
His earlier pledges about the need for internal reform, in which he claimed “whatever else transpires in this case, it is very, very clear the governance of the party was not as it should be,” already appear jaded. Indeed, across the board the SNP has run out of ideas. Just as the party can’t offer any credible way forward on its core objective of independence, nor can it point to a trailblazing domestic agenda. The strategic problems facing the party are deep and multifaceted, and while it’s unlikely this will automatically result in electoral collapse, a slower form of attrition is now baked into the operation and approach of the party leadership and its inability to shift gears. Instead, the apparatus is locked into a trajectory set by the previous leadership. At the same time, pre-existing divisions will only get worse, the SNP having lost a once hegemonic party centre and running low on the kind of political talent and independent thinking required.
Under these circumstances, the SNP will hold an “independence convention” for members to discuss the way forward. But the convention will have no decision-making power, in a move branded as “moronic” and “pathetic” by senior SNP sources. This is at least in part because there are multiple, competing views about how to tackle the national question. During Sturgeon’s reign, a far easier task befell SNP MPs and MSPs. They simply had to state, despite it being endlessly stalled, that “indyref2” was on the horizon to mobilise electoral support and camouflage domestic failings. That line waned in credibility, but after the Supreme Court misadventure, it has been removed as a possibility. Moreover, a revamped case for independence hasn’t been made for some years, notwithstanding the deeply unpopular Sustainable Growth Commission and a short series of lightweight white papers.
Even in a world without arrests and investigations, issues were mounting for the SNP. Yet these dilemmas don’t end with the independence cul-de-sac the erstwhile leadership drove the movement into. The Scottish government’s policy agenda has also been falling apart in recent years. From the National Care Service and important infrastructure projects to the failure to establish a promised National Energy Company, there’s little success to point to. Meanwhile, freeport deals are signed with Rishi Sunak and ScotWind squanders billions as the likes of BP and Shell capitalise on Scottish renewable energy.
These are treacherous days for the SNP. But they don’t come as a shock to those who have been warning of the deterioration in internal democracy, the lack of reform in favour of working class Scots and the party’s opportunistic approach to independence. Debating the future of the national movement is now defined by those willing to offer critical perspectives of the Sturgeon era and its fallout and those who perpetuate that mode of politics. The SNP leadership has nailed its mast to the latter – and as headwinds grow, that will prove to be a grave mistake.
Jonathon Shafi is a columnist for Novara Media and socialist campaigner, based in Glasgow. He writes the weekly newsletter ‘Independence Captured’.