For former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the crisis that engulfed her Scottish National Party after she left in March was already beyond her “worst nightmares”. On Sunday, the nightmare got even worse.
Sturgeon’s arrest by police investigating SNP finances is a blow not only to the reputation of one of Scotland’s most influential politicians of recent decades, but also to his party’s hopes of maintaining its national domination and to advance its cause of independence vis-à-vis the United Kingdom.
Gerry Hassan, a professor at Glasgow Caledonian University who has written about the SNP, said the arrest was a “watershed moment” for the SNP.
Hassan said the SNP had increasingly taken its supporters for granted since it took control of the Scottish government in 2007. “(Sturgeon’s arrest) brings it to light. . . the limits of the SNP leadership style,” he said.
The arrest of Sturgeon, who was released without charge later on Sunday pending further investigation, is also a huge setback for the efforts of Humza Yousaf, his successor as SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, to regain the political initiative.
Yousaf, who was the continuity candidate in the hard-fought leadership race that followed the announcement of Sturgeon’s resignation in February, has since seen his victory overshadowed by the widening fallout from Police’s Operation Branchform Scotland.
The inquiry was sparked in 2021 by allegations that the SNP had spent money fighting a future referendum on other issues. Peter Murrell, former chief executive of the SNP and Sturgeon’s husband, was arrested in April, as was Colin Beattie, then party treasurer. Both men were also released without charge pending further investigation.
A spokesperson for Sturgeon said the former first minister attended an interview with Police Scotland on Sunday ‘by arrangement’ and would ‘co-operate with the investigation’.
In a subsequent statement on Twitter, Sturgeon said she had committed no crime and that her arrest was “shock and deeply upsetting”.
“I would never do anything to harm the SNP or the country,” she wrote, adding, “I know without a doubt that I am in fact innocent of any wrongdoing.”
The widening police investigation, along with setbacks by the SNP government on issues ranging from ferry supply to recycling policy, has created an opening for Labor to regain ground in Scotland ahead of Britain’s general election in next year.
In 2019, the SNP won 48 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, while Labor won just one. But many nationalist constituencies now look vulnerable.
An opinion survey by Ipsos Mori with broadcaster STV last month revealed that the proportion of voters who would support the SNP in a general election in the UK had fallen by 10 points in the previous six months to 41%.
While Ipsos puts Labor far behind with 29%, party strategists say they hope to win up to 20 seats in Scotland next year.
A senior Labor official said the SNP’s difficulties were “an opportunity we must seize”. But he warned that the further impact on the ruling party’s vote share could be limited. People’s views on whether Scotland should leave the UK have largely influenced voting patterns in Scotland since voters rejected independence by 55-45% in a referendum in 2014 .
“The issue of independence has become very bigoted in the sense that it has grabbed hold of people and steered their vote in a way that is difficult for other parties,” the Labor personality said.
Nor does the SNP’s woes mean that the independence cause is dead. Polls suggest Scotland remains largely evenly divided on whether to end its three-century-old union with England.
But worryingly for Yousaf, the Ipsos poll has revealed signs that the SNP’s virtual monopoly on the support of independence supporters could be weakening – signs that will cheer the main British parties who must share the pro vote. -union.
To bolster support for the SNP, Yousaf sought to distance himself from his predecessor by promising better governance and greater transparency in the running of the party.
His efforts to put the political focus back on his government’s priorities have been undermined by continued uncertainty within the party – a difficulty likely to be greatly exacerbated by Sturgeon’s arrest.
“Although this is an ongoing police investigation, it is probably the biggest part of it,” said Mark Diffley, founder of an Edinburgh-based polling company. “It will probably come as a shock to many voters.”
Sturgeon’s arrest could also add to divisions within the party. The former prime 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 quite far. Nicola Sturgeon has suspended the others from the SNP for much less! Angus MacNeil, an SNP MP who has criticized the party leadership, wrote on Twitter. “It’s time to take political distance until the investigation is over anyway.”
Sturgeon is the second former SNP premier to be arrested. Alex Salmond, his former mentor turned bitter rival, was arrested and charged with sexual offenses including attempted rape in 2019. The following year, Salmond was acquitted of all charges against him.
“There are now as many former SNP prime ministers who have been arrested in connection with a criminal investigation as there are giant pandas in Scotland,” tweeted Murdo Fraser, a Conservative member of the Scottish parliament.