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Storm clouds remaining over the SNP

Scottish Government
Public Affairs

In yet another day of bad news for the SNP, Colin Beattie, MSP for the Midlothian North and Musselburgh, and Treasurer of the SNP, was arrested. It follows the arrest of Nicola Sturgeon’s husband and party chief executive Peter Murrell, the resignation of the Party’s auditors, the resignation of the head of communications after giving false information on membership data to the media, and Murrell’s own resignation as chief executive for the same reason.

Sturgeon’s mid-February resignation kicked off a series of events that threatens the SNP’s electoral dominance in Scotland and the independence case overall. In the background of Sturgeon’s resignation was the question of £600,000 in “missing” independence referendum funds. It quickly came to the fore.

When a leader goes, successors face the question of whether to provide continuity or offer a clean break with the immediate past. New First Minister Humza Yousaf doesn’t have to decide, as he explicitly stood as the only continuity candidate in the contest. To the extent that he has even committed to continue the two unwinnable challenges to the UK Government that have so far stubbornly refused to deliver the hoped-for outpouring of offended nationalist sentiment.

This provides colleagues and voters with certainty of who the new man is. But there are downsides. Yousaf seemingly lacks enough sole authority to take usual steps like suspending those party members under police investigation for fraud. It would be standard political party fare to protect the reputation of the organisation in case anything is proved against a member. But it’s possible the new leader is too tied to the mast of Good Ship Sturgeon to act.

Beyond individual implications for those under investigation, the consequences for the SNP are two-fold: financial and electoral. According to The Times, Beattie had told the SNP National Executive Committee over the weekend that the Party was running out of cash linked to the exodus of party members (about a third have left since 2021), and legal fees related to the fraud investigation. SNP veteran Ian Blackford was forced to take to the airwaves to deny the story.

Labour, already delighted with the election of Yousaf on such a narrow – authority sapping – margin and his commitment to continuity, will seek to gain from the connection of the SNP with scandal. Labour leader Anas Sarwar completely ignored the content of Yousaf’s “reset” speech this afternoon. His reply was wholly focused on the crisis at the heart of the governing party.

If anyone is convicted of fraud, one would think the electorate will mete out its own punishment to the Party. Losing seats at next year’s election will park the independence question for a good while. But then, that’s always the risk of binding up the Party’s image with one individual and their project (in a democracy at least). Somewhere not too far away, just off-stage, we hear the laughter of former strong leader Alex Salmond. Oh, and that’s the other thing about politics: you can come back.