April 19, 2024 - 11:30am

So, there we have it. According to the BBC, Peter Murrell, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband and until last year the Chief Executive of the Scottish National Party for more than two decades, has been charged with embezzlement as part of an investigation into Nationalist finances.

At this point, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. If there was any good explanation for where the missing £600,000 — raised for an independence-fighting fund — had gone, it would not have taken three years (and counting) to produce it. Nor would the police likely have felt the need to dig up the ex-first minister’s garden.

But it still is surprising, somehow. When Operation Branchform (the police probe into the SNP’s finances) kicked off, it felt very likely the explanation would be, if not lawful, at least mundane: a party leadership realising there wasn’t going to be another referendum anytime soon and spending the pot on other campaigning or operating expenses. Not, as the BBC seems to imply, stealing it.

Murrell is of course innocent until proven guilty, and we have not seen the police’s evidence. Nor do we yet know if they intend to charge anyone else — most obviously, his wife.

Thus, attention will now be drawn once again to the outwardly strange dynamics of the House of Sturgeon.

Why strange? Well, during the fallout from the Scottish Government’s disastrous mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond, one of the key questions examined by the Scottish Parliament was who knew what and when.

Sturgeon was the SNP’s all-powerful leader, and Murrell its longstanding chief executive; the governmental, political, and organisational leadership of the Scottish Nationalists lived in the same house. Yet the then-First Minister’s story relied on the idea that the pair maintained strict informational barriers about party matters.

If the charges against Murrell stick, we will doubtless hear the same thing again. But it will be even less plausible than before. After all, it’s one thing for a political power-couple to be ultra-conscientious about work matters. It’s quite another for them to be totally uninterested in their own finances.

Obviously, a thief (if thief there was) might hide their handywork. But in 2021 Murrell loaned the SNP over £100,000 to “assist with cashflow”, without properly declaring it. Earlier donations totalling £15,000 may be subject to a second official investigation.

Is it really possible that he could donate a six-figure sum to anything without having to explain the decision to his wife? Or that, as SNP leader, she wouldn’t have been kept up to date with the party’s financial situation by her own husband? We shall see.

Then there’s the question of where this leaves the SNP. Politically, it could be extraordinarily damaging. Not just for the normal reasons that having a venerated former leader implicated in scandal is damaging, nor merely because Humza Yousaf, the embattled First Minister, explicitly pitched himself as Sturgeon’s heir when he ran for the leadership.

If the referendum-fighting fund was stolen (and nothing has yet been proven), it means that at some point the Nationalist leadership lost faith in independence. Even as Sturgeon kept trying to pretend that the next big push was just around the corner, senior officers were quietly selling off the armoury and planning a comfortable retirement.

Should that be the case, then it is fitting — indeed, deeply karmic — that the fall of the House of Sturgeon was precipitated not by anything Unionists did, but instead by outraged separatist donors who, having finally had enough of the SNP’s autocratic leadership and its refusal to give them answers, went to the police in the first place.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.