As Nicola Sturgeon's problems grow, has she just given a hint of when she will quit as First Minister? – John McLellan
Whenever high-profile organisations find themselves under investigation for potentially criminal acts, how often does the official statement say, “we are aghast that the authorities would ever think us capable of such deeds and we will not grace this ludicrous inquiry with our co-operation”?
That’s right, never. There is often a denial that a crime has been committed, but invariably a commitment to “cooperate fully with any investigation”.
In presentational terms, there isn’t any choice, especially for a governing political party responsible for the justice system, and this week the SNP duly announced its full co-operation when Police Scotland confirmed an inquiry had been launched into its independence campaign funds.
Over three years to 2020, the party raised over £660,000 it promised to spend on the referendum battle, but complaints were made when accounts revealed there was only £97,000 in the bank at the end of 2019.
Treasurer Douglas Chapman MP quit after alleging he had not been given sufficient information, Joanna Cherry MP left the management board in a “transparency and scrutiny” dispute and in March three members of the Finance and Audit Committee, including accountant and Edinburgh Lord Provost Frank Ross, resigned after claiming access to the books had been blocked.
The accusing fingers point at chief executive Peter Murrell, the First Minister’s husband, and because one digit belongs to independence zealot Sean Clerkin doesn’t diminish the seriousness of an allegation that over half a million pounds has gone missing.
But as the SNP’s independence campaign is constant, it won’t be hard to argue that the 2019 and 2021 election campaigns were part of it and they’re not funded by Monopoly money.
And as no-one suggests pockets have been lined or that Mr Murrell can’t explain a new Ferrari and villa in Albufeira, the chances of this investigation resulting in a prosecution, never mind a conviction, are slim.
But the cops are in and conviction isn’t needed to inflict political damage; just having Plod poring over the books is as bad a look as it gets for an organisation responsible for the nation’s accounts, and as big a gift for the opposition as if Italy ’keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma had pulled a hamstring at the end of extra time last Sunday and was substituted by Wee Jimmy Krankie.
Maybe Ms Sturgeon will say she and her husband are looking forward to speaking to police to clear it all up, just as she told the Scottish Parliament about the Alex Salmond inquiry but, if it came to it, being interviewed under caution in Gayfield Square might not be quite the same as narrowing your eyes at Murdo Fraser and Jackie Bailie.
The very fact there is a police investigation involving Ms Sturgeon’s household so soon after the dust had begun to settle on the bitter divisions of the Salmond affair, and the clear-out of troublemakers to the damp-squib Alba Party, means there is no respite from internal party grief.
All grassroots members of political parties can feel remote from the inner elite at times, but even with as large a membership as the SNP, Scotland is still a small place where six degrees of separation can easily be halved and many SNP members will have what feels like a close relationship with their leadership.
They will want to know their hard-raised cash is being well spent, or at least on what, so when prominent colleagues walk out of the finance committee because even they can’t find out, it questions good faith and sends a signal that members are being taken for granted. And the 98 per cent of Scots who are not in the SNP are entitled to ask if SNP members’ money can be taken for granted, what about theirs?
For a First Minister who was already looking tired of the whole business of having to explain her actions to those she appears to dismiss as political pygmies, the investigation is another unwelcome distraction from dealing with the seemingly endless pandemic, amidst rising hospitalisation numbers, deepening confusion about what is and isn’t allowed, increasing dismay in the hospitality industry and a vaccination programme which remains sluggish despite being the only way out of the crisis.
To a shattered economy, a health service on its knees, and an education system heading for another ruckus when the exam results come out, Ms Sturgeon can add the urgent need for reform of the Lord Advocate’s role ─ for which she accepts there is a "strong, prima facie case" ─ to her to-do list.
As the Scottish Government’s senior law officer, ex-officio member of Ms Surgeon’s Cabinet and head of the prosecution service, Dorothy Bain QC hasn’t been in the job two months and already she potentially might have to sign off a prosecution against the party which runs the government of which she is a member.
Even worse, let’s say the police inquiry does unearth evidence of criminality but the Procurator Fiscal decides there is no realistic chance of a conviction and drops it, how does that look when the person ultimately signing that off is the person who gives Ms Sturgeon legal advice? Ms Bain will be praying the police investigation goes nowhere because otherwise, in the dirty game that is politics, she’s in a no-win position.
All the while, the independence referendum campaign for which that £660,000 was raised seems as spent as the money. Maybe a vote will come a year or two after a General Election in 2023, but that’s a big presumption for many reasons; a long time to argue that increasing direct UK government investment in Scotland is a bad thing and a long time to maintain support at present levels, never mind the majority on the day needed to land the big prize. As she said of departing Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, “ten years is a good shift”. Does she have her eyes on the time?
John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh
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