“The Party has never been in a stronger financial position than it is right now, and that is a reflection of our strength and our membership.”
Thus spake Nicola Sturgeon in 2021, according to a video clip which leaked to the papers over the weekend. She also warned her audience to “be very careful” about “suggestions that there are problems with the Party’s finances.”
The Sunday Mail has published a video of Nicola Sturgeon from the meeting in a furious Comical Ali-style tirade following the read out resignation statement made by audit sub-committee member Allison Graham. Just a few days later the police probe started. pic.twitter.com/hrhFcik1FI— Aidan Kerr (@AFK103) April 16, 2023
Two years later, her husband has been forced to resign his twenty-year sinecure as Chief Executive after it emerged the Party had lied about the loss of 30,000 members, and Humza Yousaf has been reduced to insisting that the SNP is “solvent”.
Since the last time I covered this story in Red, White, and Blue, the story has gone from bad to worse for the Nationalists to an extent their long-suffering opponents could scarcely have dreamed of.
Following their multi-day search of the Murrells’ home, which included erecting an evidence tent and digging up the garden, the police seized a £110,000 luxury motorhome from the driveway of Sturgeon’s 92-year-old mother-in-law. Yousaf has since confirmed it is owned by the SNP, but despite allegedly being bought to serve as an election battle-bus, it was never deployed as such.
It has also emerged that the resignation of the party’s auditors did not occur as a result of Murrell’s arrest but had happened six months earlier, and they had simply not been replaced. Then, yesterday morning, news broke that Colin Beattie, the SNP Treasurer, had been arrested.
As a result, the afterglow of the Sturgeon era is now fading very fast, with mounting speculation that she will resign as an MSP and even calls for her to quit the party altogether.
The long-term significance of such a collapse should not be under-estimated. As I wrote in February, the former First Minister remained a potent weapon in the separatists’ arsenal, especially if she were allowed to leave on her own terms and establish a flattering mythology of her time in office.
As it stands, the odds of either her or Alex Salmond, the two remarkable leaders who took the SNP from a fringe force to an hegemonic position in Scottish politics, will be able to return as well-regarded elder statesman in the event of a second referendum – which in any event is looking less and less likely.
Yousaf, whilst grappling with all this, is also having to fight fires on the domestic front. The Ferry Fiasco – which now has its own Wikipedia page! – lurches from worse to even worse, with lifeline services failing due to faulty vessels and the Ministry of Defence having to step in.
(Yet as yet still no suggestion that HM Government, which via the Barnett Formula subsidises the Scottish Government to a huge degree, should take any responsibility policing such a woeful misspending of British taxpayers’ money.)
The First Minister has also committed to mounting a legal challenge to Alister Jack’s decision to veto his predecessor’s Gender Recognition (Reform) Bill, at taxpayers’ expense, despite its most controversial provisions being deeply unpopular with the Scottish public, and is resisting strong pressure to review Scottish Government plans for Highly Protected Marine Areas.
If the proposals for HPMAs are enacted unamended, they will close ten per cent of Scotland’s territorial waters to all economic activity, without even exemptions for artisanal fishing by locals built into the Blue Belt, the UK’s network of protected marine zones in the Overseas Territories. There are even suggestions swimming might be banned.
What both these policies have in common is they are very popular with the Scottish Greens, upon whom the SNP relies for its overall majority in Holyrood thanks to a woefully-negotiated agreement which doesn’t even oblige the smaller party to take collective responsibility for things it doesn’t like.
It isn’t obvious that the Nationalists really need this pact; the Greens have tended to serve as loyal separatist foederati most of the time anyway, and it isn’t as if there’s a bold legislative agenda to deliver.
But Yousaf made a big deal of the alliance during the leadership election (the Greens threatened to pull out of it were Kate Forbes elected), and now seems to be letting the tail wag the dog, to mounting dissatisfaction in his own ranks.
We of course don’t yet know how the police investigation into the SNP’s finances will conclude. Yet even if the criminal element comes to nothing, it is clearly in dire straits, with Beattie warning that it “having difficulty in balancing the books due to the reduction in membership and donors” and that: “We need to find money to keep the party going forward or we’ll keep cutting our tail until there’s nothing left.”
Without that, the First Minister faced an extremely challenging task. His own party, never mind his Frankenstein government, not only has a poor record on domestic governance but precious little internal agreement on a whole range of policy issues.
The two things which papered over this were imperial leadership from the party hierarchy and the overweening imperative of delivering independence.
But Yousaf does not have Sturgeon’s charisma or authority, and the Murrellite party machine which might have supported him is falling apart in real time.
Meanwhile he no more has a realistic path forwards to a second referendum than she did, and the disaffection amongst the grassroots is apparent. Even after losing tens of thousands of members, tens of thousands more could not be bothered to cast their ballots to choose the first minister; that the party now seems in dire financial straits says nothing good about donor confidence either.
This is not grounds for complacency on the part of the SNP’s unionist opponents; hoping a run of defeats would see the separatist problem simply go away is how the Thatcher Government managed to squander the constitutional annus mirabilis of 1979.
Having spent long years forlornly pointing out that the emperor had no clothes and watching Scottish voters elect him best-dressed sovereign regardless, they need to recognise that the game has changed and seize the initiative. The time for action is now.