For former Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, the crisis that engulfed her Scottish National party after she stepped in March was already beyond her “worst nightmares”. On Sunday, the nightmare got a whole lot worse.
Sturgeon’s arrest by police investigating SNP finances is a hammer blow not only to the reputation of one of Scotland’s most influential politicians of recent decades, but also to her party’s hopes of sustaining its national dominance and furthering its cause of independence from the UK.
Gerry Hassan, a professor at Glasgow Caledonian University who has written on the SNP, said the arrest was a “watershed moment” for the SNP.
Hassan said the SNP had increasingly taken its supporters for granted since winning control of Scotland’s government in 2007. “[Sturgeon’s arrest] brings into the open . . . the limits of the SNP’s leadership style,” he said.
The arrest of Sturgeon, who was released without charge later on Sunday pending further investigation, is also a huge setback to the efforts of Humza Yousaf, her successor as SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister, to regain the political initiative.
Yousaf, who was the continuity candidate in the bitterly contested leadership race that followed Sturgeon’s resignation announcement in February, has since seen his victory overshadowed by widening fallout from Police Scotland’s Operation Branchform.
The investigation was sparked in 2021 by claims the SNP had spent money raised to fight a future referendum on other things. Peter Murrell, the SNP’s former chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, was arrested in April, as was the party’s then-treasurer Colin Beattie. Both men were also released without charge pending further investigation.
A spokesperson for Sturgeon said the former first minister had attended an interview with Police Scotland on Sunday “by arrangement” and would “co-operate with the investigation”.
In a later statement on Twitter, Sturgeon said she had committed no crime and that being arrested was “a shock and deeply distressing”.
“I would never do anything to harm either the SNP or the country,” she wrote, adding: “I know beyond doubt that I am in fact innocent of any wrongdoing.”
The widening police probe, together with setbacks for the SNP government on issues from ferry provision to recycling policy, has created an opening for Labour to regain ground in Scotland ahead of next year’s UK general election.
In 2019, the SNP won 48 out of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats while Labour took just one. But many Nationalist constituencies are now looking vulnerable.
An opinion poll by Ipsos Mori with broadcaster STV last month found that the proportion of voters who would back the SNP in a UK general election had fallen 10 points in the previous six months to 41 per cent.
While Ipsos put Labour well behind on 29 per cent, party strategists say they hope to gain as many as 20 seats in Scotland next year.
A senior Labour figure said the SNP’s travails were “an opportunity that we need to grab”. But he warned that further impact on the governing party’s vote share might be limited. People’s views on whether Scotland should leave the UK have largely driven voting patterns in Scotland since voters rejected independence by 55-45 per cent in a 2014 referendum.
“The independence issue has become very sectarian in the sense that it has taken a hold on people and directs how they vote in a way that is difficult for the other parties,” the Labour figure said.
Nor do the SNP’s woes mean the independence cause is dead. Polls suggest Scotland remains broadly evenly divided on the merits of ending its three-century-old union with England.
But worryingly for Yousaf, the Ipsos poll found signs that the SNP’s near-monopoly on the backing of independence supporters could be weakening — hints that will cheer the main UK parties that have to share the pro-union vote between them.
To shore up support for the SNP, Yousaf has sought to distance himself from his predecessor by promising improved governance and transparency in party management.
His efforts to return the political focus to his government’s priorities have been undermined by the continuing uncertainty within the party — a difficulty likely to be greatly exacerbated by Sturgeon’s arrest.
“While this has been an ongoing police investigation, this is probably the biggest part of it,” said Mark Diffley, founder of an Edinburgh-based polling company. “This will probably be a shock to many voters.”
Sturgeon’s arrest could also add to divisions within the party. The former first minister, who even opponents say was one of the most effective politicians of her generation, remains popular with many SNP members.
But Yousaf came under immediate pressure to suspend his predecessor from the party. “This soap-opera has gone far enough. Nicola Sturgeon suspended others from the SNP for an awful lot less!” Angus MacNeil, an SNP MP who has been critical of the party leadership, wrote on Twitter. “Time for political distance until the investigation ends either way.”
Sturgeon is the second former SNP first minister to be arrested. Alex Salmond, her one-time mentor turned bitter rival, was arrested and charged with sexual offences included attempted rape in 2019. The next year, Salmond was acquitted of all the charges against him.
“There are now as many former SNP first ministers who have been arrested as part of a criminal investigation as there are giant pandas in Scotland,” tweeted Murdo Fraser, a Conservative member of the Scottish parliament.