12 June 2023

Only Nicola Sturgeon could bring about the demise of the SNP


News of the arrest of Nicola Sturgeon by Police Scotland broke upon the Scottish political arena like a much-delayed thunder storm upon a parched summer landscape. Like those Scots unused to temperatures over 20 degrees who repeatedly refresh their BBC Weather app to find out if today will be the day when we finally get back to cold, wet, miserable normal, the long expected arrest had felt to observers as if it might never happen.

But it did. The former First Minister was detained by police investigating the whereabouts of £600,000 donated by SNP members for the purported purpose of funding a second independence referendum campaign. The campaign itself never happened and concerns were raised that, according to published accounts, the money seemed to have been used anyway. A real mystery!

Previously, Sturgeon’s own husband, the party’s former chief executive, Peter Murrell, and the former SNP treasurer, Colin Beattie, were arrested by officers and, like Sturgeon after them, were released without charge pending further investigation.

Which makes Humza Yousaf, Sturgeon’s successor as First Minister, the first SNP leader in nearly 20 years not to have been arrested. Something to be proud of, certainly.

In fact, it was Mr Yousaf’s well-known political Midas touch which presaged a dramatic day. In his most recent interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, broadcast on Sunday morning, the First Minister responded to a question about his predecessor by reassuring audiences that while recent events had been ‘difficult and dramatic’, she was nevertheless ‘doing well’. Hours later Plod came a-knockin’ chez Sturgeon.

It hardly needs restating that all of this is very bad news indeed for the SNP and for Yousaf, especially just a few days after it was confirmed that the former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier faces a recall petition in her Rutherglen constituency, after being suspended from the House of Commons for breaking Covid rules in 2020. A by-election will now almost certainly be held in the autumn and it’s one that Scottish Labour has high hopes of winning. They had better, because if they fail to defeat the SNP in such circumstances, they can kiss goodbye to any sort of resurgence at the next general election.

But the main opposition to the SNP at Holyrood comes from the second largest party, the Scottish Conservatives, and it is somewhat depressing to see how Douglas Ross’ party has misjudged its response to Sturgeon’s arrest. The Napoleonic advice never to interrupt an opponent when he’s making a mistake should be emblazoned in wrought iron over the desk of every Tory MSP and party official. Instead, the party chairman, Craig Hoy, chose to demand that Sturgeon be deprived of the SNP whip, despite the fact that she has not been charged with anything.

The Scottish Tories have enjoyed being the main opposition to the SNP since 2016 and fear losing that position to a resurgent Labour Party. So it’s natural that they should want to assume a prominent position during this political drama. The slight problem is that no one cares what any of the opposition parties have to say about the future of Nicola Sturgeon – their take is not one that Scots are bothered about hearing right now.

Tory press officers might well be straining their sinews and consulting online thesauruses for the mots justes to put into the mouths of MSPs, words that will paralyse the party of government with fear. But do they really reckon that anything they dream up can remotely compete with TV pictures of Ms Sturgeon’s garden being dug up by police officers, an evidence tent being erected in said garden, the discovery of a campervan, paid for by the SNP and left to gather dust for two years on the driveway of Ms Sturgeon’s mother-in-law, and the arrest of the ex-FM herself? Seriously?

Opposition MSPs would aid their cause, and the cause of holding the United Kingdom together, by keeping their thoughts to themselves for now and allowing the Scottish public to draw their own conclusions without the help of interested parties, thank you very much.

No one knows if charges and a trial will eventually follow these high-profile arrests, but so long as the police investigation continues, a cloud of doubt will remain over the heads of the individuals concerned, as well as the party itself.

After all the efforts of the pro-UK parties at Holyrood in the last ten years to undermine and defeat the nationalist cause, the SNP’s greatest challenge to its hegemony has not arisen from anything its opponents have done. If the police investigation results in the timely, indeed overdue, demise of the SNP, the other political parties can take none of the credit, however hard they will try.

That alone stands as a credit to the SNP and to Sturgeon: the party’s political dominance was unchallenged for a very long time and its electoral success unbroken across three general elections, four Holyrood elections and numerous local government contests. If it is ultimately brought low by events entirely outside the control of its political opponents, then Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland need to ask themselves some hard questions about the fruitless strategies they have pursued in the last decade.

Maybe focus on that instead of trying to elbow your way into a news story that has no role for you, eh?

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.