Dani Garavelli: Natalie McGarry leaves a trail of betrayal

Sociable and vivacious, Natalie McGarry swept into the fledgling Women for Independence movement like a whirlwind. Back then the referendum campaign was in its infancy; “shouty” male voices dominated and a group of prominent female Yes supporters, including Carolyn Leckie, Susan Stewart and Jeane Freeman, wanted to create something different: a grassroots organisation based on trust.

Natalie McGarry arrives at Glasgow Sheriff Court last Friday. The hearing was adjourned until 6 June pending reports. Picture: John Devlin

Those involved took McGarry to their hearts; they befriended her, drank with her and helped bolster her career. And yet she stole £21,000 from the organisation. The act was not only a betrayal of her closest friends, but of everything WFI stood for.

With hindsight, it is easy to see how she ingratiated herself. A “bairn of the SNP”, she came with an impeccable pedigree. Her aunt is former Holyrood presiding officer Tricia Marwick and her mother, Alice McGarry, an SNP councillor in Fife; everyone knew of her, even if they had never met her.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

“I was predisposed to like her because of her family,” one WFI member tells me. “But she also had a way of making you feel your company was sought after which can be quite seductive.”

Not everyone was impressed. Some older activists found her bolshie. And she clashed with Kate Higgins, then one of the organisation’s most high-profile members, now a special adviser.

“Natalie was jealous of Kate because Kate was a seasoned operator occupying the hill she wanted to be on,” says one member. “And Kate was shrewd. She was one of the first to say we needed more financial accountability.”

Others who craved to be close to the heart of the campaign cleaved to McGarry and her friend, Shona McAlpine, then Humza Yousaf’s office manager, because they were energetic and fun to hang out with.

“Those were such great days,” says one former friend. “I think what upsets me most is that being part of the campaign gave me back a sense of my own worth. I had fire in my belly and I knew I had done good work. Now all that has been tarnished.”

WFI launched in early autumn, 2012. It was inspired by the fact that while 47 per cent of men supported independence, only 25 per cent of women did. The idea was to build slowly and be inclusive.

The notion of trust was important because it was supposed to be cross-party. Some members were also keen it should not be perceived as a “middle-class feminist group”; that working class women should find it accessible and welcoming.

“My impression of Natalie was that she was dynamic, outgoing and efficient,” says Leckie, a former Scottish Socialist Party MSP. “I thought it was important to reach out beyond the politics I had been involved in previously, and she was an antidote to all that.”

From the very beginning, McGarry appears to have been spinning yarns. She told her new friends she had a law degree, although she doesn’t appear to have graduated, and that her job involved helping third sector organisations apply for European funding (most believe she was unemployed).

Back then, however, no-one doubted her, not even Leckie, who had more reason than most to be on her guard having just endured a bruising experience with Tommy Sheridan.

“That’s where the personal hurt comes in,” says Leckie. “Natalie knew my faith in people had been shaken, but then I also knew that about myself. I was almost making myself trust because I knew you couldn’t create a successful organisation without it.”

Soon, McGarry was appointed Treasurer. To an outsider, it might seem strange she was given so much financial responsibility. She was always someone who liked to be at the centre of a drama; and many of those dramas involved money. But she was able to trade on the tumult caused by the organisation’s rapid growth.

Suddenly, crowd-funders were raising thousands of pounds and money was being spent on printing leaflets and hiring marquees. Meanwhile, many members were juggling WFI duties with full-time jobs.

“Natalie would get things done and so she relieved pressure on people, but I think that was part of the way she operated,” says Leckie. “She made herself seem indispensable and then she would get herself into positions where she could abuse your trust.”

Last week, Glasgow Sheriff Court court heard how she stole £26,500 from pro-independence organisations. At WFI, she transferred money raised through fundraising events into her personal bank accounts and failed to pass on donations to charities including Perth and Kinross food bank . She also used cheques drawn on the WFI bank account to deposit money into her own account.

If McGarry had wanted to earn a wage, she could have applied for one of the back-room jobs that WFI created as the movement grew. But, other members agree, she preferred to be centre stage.

She was highly ambitious. On top of her role at WFI, she was convener of the Glasgow Regional Association of the SNP and chair of the Glasgow Yes group. Living in Shawlands, not far from Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency, she wangled her way into the Glasgow Southside SNP clique. There are many photographs of McGarry with the then deputy first minister.

Still, her upwards trajectory was not seen as something to be resented. Indeed, so sisterly was the vibe, that most WFI members were delighted when she was selected to stand in the Cowdenbeath by-election in January 2014 (which she lost to Labour’s Alex Rowley) and as the candidate for Glasgow East in the 2015 general election (which she took from Labour’s Margaret Curran).

Women from other parties joined her on the campaign trail. “I wasn’t exactly flush, but I donated £50,” says Leckie. “She sort of grabbed it out of my hand. I do remember feeling that was a bit entitled.”

McGarry seems to have been working on the assumption that WFI would be wound down in the wake of the referendum. Instead, interest soared, with a rush of new members signing up immediately after the vote.

In October 2014, the organisation held a meeting in Perth to decide whether or not to continue. In the end, 1,000 women turned up and the decision to carry on appeared to be a no-brainer.

Everyone was on a high, except for McGarry. “I remember Natalie was really miserable that day,” says Leckie. “She was stuck in the back and kept insisting on ironing T-shirts, which was strange.” Could it be that she suddenly realised greater scrutiny was now inevitable?

If so, she was spot-on; five months later, at WFI’s first AGM, it was decided individuals would pay to be members and vote for the national committee. The local groups would be affiliated, but autonomous and more rigorous accounting systems would be introduced.

By this point, questions about the organisation’s finances were already being raised. WFI was supposed to submit its electoral commission returns in February 2015, and McGarry was being evasive. A professional accountant asked to sort things out couldn’t make the figures add up either.

Installed at Westminster, McGarry continued to be slippery. “You would try to talk to her and she would surround herself with people,” says Leckie who went to stay with her in Camden. “It was impossible to get her alone.”

Eventually, members had to accept the truth: there was a large sum of money missing and McGarry was unable to account for its whereabouts. Confronted, she agreed to pay back £6,000, but she did not admit to having stolen anything. When she refused to hand over the rest of the cash, those who had uncovered the deficit felt they had no choice but to call the police.

“It was horrible knowing the harm it could do to Natalie’s career, the SNP and WFI,” one of those closely involved in the decision says, “but people – many of whom could ill afford it – had given us money in good faith and we owed it to them to make sure it was properly investigated.”

When the national committee was informed, it gave its unanimous backing. Sturgeon too supported WFI, despite the embarrassment and damage the scandal would inevitably inflict on the party.

But not everyone approved of the action; some prominent members were verbally abused by their local branch members who believed McGarry had been falsely accused.

Though the theft did not split WFI, it left it open to criticism. To make matters worse, McGarry’s refusal to accept responsibility meant the prospect of having to give evidence in court hung over key witnesses, including the new Health Secretary Jeane Freeman, for more than three years.

The case was delayed not only by McGarry’s pregnancy – she gave birth to a daughter in late 2017 – but by her repeated sacking of her defence lawyers. Then, a fortnight ago, she pleaded guilty only to try – and fail – to rescind the plea the following week.

McGarry cut an isolated figure as she turned up at court alone. Her political career is over; her life destroyed. As she awaits sentencing, those she betrayed are filled more with regret than a lust for vengeance.

They still seem bewildered that this comrade with whom they shared the giddy highs and lows of the referendum campaign was, all the time, using them. Some admit to missing… well, not her, exactly, but the woman they thought she was.

“Sometimes I think back to the times we shared,” one member says. “I think 
of the baby we should have had the chance to cuddle. But Natalie was always out for herself. We never really knew her at all.”