The swift demise of the cult of Nicola Sturgeon

 /  March 29, 2024, 10:45 a.m.

Nicola Sturgeon

First Minister of Scotland/Flickr 2018

Nicola Sturgeon, the former First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party, at an event prior to her fraud allegations and resignation

It is December 2019. The Scottish National Party (SNP) just won 81 percent of the Scottish seats in the House of Commons. Nicola Sturgeon is almost untouchable, maintaining a majority of Scottish seats for her third election in a row as the leader of the party. Sturgeon victoriously announces that the election represents the Scottish people emphatically placing their faith in the SNP and in her leadership and that she is going to strive to secure Scottish Independence.

Fast-forward to January 2024 and the scene has changed. The SNP is polling at 39 percent, just seven points ahead of the Labour party. While the SNP are still the most trusted party in Scotland, they have a new leader in Hamza Yousseff. Sturgeon has been cast away to political wilderness, her personal influence over the party and over Scottish politics undoubtedly reduced. So, what went wrong for the SNP and for Sturgeon?

The party and some senior officials allied with Sturgeon have been accused of engaging in campaign finance fraud, the subject of the ongoing Operation Branchform by Police Scotland. This investigation was launched in 2021 after seven different complaints of campaign finance fraud. The allegations are mainly centered around two claims. First, that the SNP misused funds that were specifically donated for the cause of securing a second Scottish Independence referendum to finance their campaign during the 2017 UK general election. Second, the police are investigating a loan of £107,620 to the party made by Peter Murrell, who at the time was the CEO of the SNP and is also married to Nicola Sturgeon.

The police started their investigation by merely contacting members of the SNP in February 2023. This contact came just before Sturgeon’s announcement of her resignation as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, a decision that she maintains was completely unrelated to any investigation into her or the party.

The investigation quickly escalated later in the year, with the police arresting Peter Murrell in April 2023 and the family home of him and Sturgeon being searched by police. Soon after, the SNP headquarters were also searched by police and they arrested Colin Beattie (MSP). Then, on June 11, 2023, Sturgeon herself was arrested by police, though she was only questioned and was later released without charge. These arrests led to a loss of credibility for Sturgeon and her allies. Recently, members of the Scottish parliament demanded her suspension as a member of the SNP, though Hamza Youssef, the new SNP leader, resisted these calls as of February 2024.

Operation Branchform does not represent the end of Sturgeon’s woes, however. While testifying to the UK Covid-19 inquiry, which was set up to investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic, it was revealed that Sturgeon had deleted all of her WhatsApp messages between her and some of her ministers from the time of the pandemic. This removal of evidence directly flew in the face of Sturgeon’s 2021 promise that she would publicly release all of her messages and has led to allegations of secrecy and untrustworthiness. Indeed, a poll in January 2024 revealed that most Scottish people do not trust Sturgeon, something that represents an undignified end to the political career of the ex-first minister.  

The SNP has largely moved on from Sturgeon under the leadership of Hamza Yousef and they are maintaining a somewhat positive standing in opinion polls. However, these scandals have weakened them, especially concerning the public’s trust in their leadership. Importantly, this blow to public trust in leadership marks just another occasion in which politicians have lost the people’s faith. Indeed, in the last decade, the perceived integrity of leaders has been hit by allegations of lies surrounding the Brexit campaign, the ‘partygate’ scandal of the Tory party during Covid, and Liz Truss’ short premiership. Operation Branchform thus likely adds to this lack of trust that the British electorate has in their current leaders. Therefore, with a general election on the horizon, and the Labour party looking to regain some of their old Scottish seats, this scandal could thus have a large impact on the UK political landscape this year, perhaps even playing a role in tilting the election in Labour’s favor. 

The image used in this article is licensed for noncommercial reuse under the CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed. It has been unaltered from its original form created by the First Minister of Scotland on 16 February 2018 and can be accessed here on Flickr.

Hassan Sachee


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