At a time of almost constant political upheaval across the UK in the last few years, sometimes it feels that nothing would surprise us. But the astonishing events that unfolded in Glasgow on the morning of April 5 managed to detonate that notion. At the end of the new first minister Humza Yousaf’s first seven days in charge, the Scottish National Party (SNP) was in the global spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Police Scotland announced that they had arrested a 58-year-old man as a “suspect in connection with an investigation into the funding and finances” of the SNP, the governing party of the country. Minutes later the media revealed that person was Peter Murrell, ex-chief executive of the SNP and husband of the recently retired first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
The nature of the specific arrest of Murrell is relatively new in Scots law. He has not been charged with any criminal offence and was released yesterday evening within the 12-hour window police have to charge or free a suspect – pending further investigations.
What this type of arrest does allow for though, is the possibility of searching premises linked to the individual in custody. On cue, cameras showed the rather shocking spectacle of the extensive police presence at both Murrell’s home – complete with screens and a plastic gazebo – and the SNP offices in Edinburgh where he spent 24 years in his leading role.
Although it already seems another era, Murrell entered the Scottish public consciousness relatively recently when he resigned three weeks ago during the SNP leadership campaign over a row with the media about membership numbers. Murrell rejected reports there had been a fall of 30,000 SNP members – a figure the party later confirmed to be true.
For someone so entwined in the biggest Scottish political party for so long – Murrell’s first political job was as office manager for ex-first minister Alex Salmond in the 1990s – it is clear that, as new party leader Yousuf said: “This is a difficult day for the party.” However, this was something of an understatement as fleets of police vans pulled up outside party headquarters and a helicopter hovered over Murrell and Sturgeon’s home just outside Glasgow.
It is not fully clear what the police investigation covers and what evidence they are searching for. It was reported last week that the police had passed a dossier to Scottish criminal prosecutor the Crown Office on their initial investigation into the finances of the SNP. A decision to take that investigation further would be made by the independent prosecutor; clearly, given Wednesday’s events, that decision was executed.
The issues around the investigation seem to focus on a specific fund of £600,000 that was raised by the party from members and supporters for an independence campaign which has not taken place.
This is not the first time financial issues have been raised about the funds. There was a discussion internally in the SNP with MP Douglas Chapman resigning as party treasurer in May 2021 because he said he was not given enough information about the finances to be able to do his job. This accusation was rejected by other party officials, as was the possibility of any police investigation into the finances at that point.
It was then revealed last year that Murrell had loaned the SNP £108,000 in 2021. Initially the party accounts did not directly indicate the money had come from him – this was revealed by the Electoral Commission. Some repayments had been made to Murrell, but £60,000 is still due to be repaid.
Social media and contempt of court
These may be some of the issues being explored by the police as they are all related to the finances of the SNP, but it is impossible to be specific. The announcement of the arrest came with the warning that the Contempt of Court Act 1981 is now live.
The Crown Office has taken a strong approach with several high-profile and controversial criminal cases in Scotland in recent years. People have been successfully prosecuted for breaching reporting restrictions on live criminal cases on a variety of media. In a statement on Wednesday evening, Police Scotland advised the public to exercise caution if discussing events on social media.
Clearly, though, the shock of Murrell’s arrest has some way to play out and more will be revealed as events unfold. For the SNP, already under fire for the bitterly divisive nature of its leadership contest and the choosing of a continuity candidate for its new party leader, the optics are not good.