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What to know about Scottish National Party police probe after Nicola Sturgeon questioned

What to know about Scottish National Party police probe after Nicola Sturgeon questioned

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Nicola Sturgeon was released without charge pending further investigation Sunday night after being questioned by police probing the finances of the Scottish National Party she once led.

The arrest of Scotland’s former first minister marked the latest dramatic twist in a story which has dominated Scottish politics for months and plunged the pro-independence party into bitter infighting.

Here’s POLITICO’s guide to the investigation so far.

What is the investigation about?

To answer that, we have to go back to early 2017, and the fight for Scottish independence.

The Sturgeon-led SNP were in fine fettle — with senior party figures believing Brexit, which was opposed by a majority of Scottish voters in 2016, gave them cause to pursue a fresh referendum on breaking up the United Kingdom.

In that spirit, the SNP opened a new channel for donations to help drive their campaign for a new vote.

Around £482,000 was raised in just a couple of months. But Westminster’s own wild politics intervened, as Theresa May rolled the dice and called a snap election. While May herself was burned badly, the SNP lost 21 Westminster seats in that vote, a disappointing reversal for a party that had hoped to seize on Scottish anger at Brexit.

The party dropped the second referendum fundraising campaign just three months after it began — and stopped accepting donations. The SNP said the money would be “ring-fenced” for fighting a future referendum and that it would not be used to pay for their election campaign.

Another donation portal for a second referendum was then launched in 2019. Donations to this and the initial appeal would eventually total £666,953 — a number that would come up again and again in the coming years.

Despite repeated calls from SNP activists and independence supporters for a referendum, it has yet to materialize, with the party split on a strategy for achieving its biggest prize. And those who donated their hard-earned cash started to wonder what it was being spent on.

When the Electoral Commission watchdog published the SNP’s accounts for 2019, in 2020, they revealed that the party had just under £97,000 in the bank despite the “ring-fenced” fundraising. The SNP’s treasurer, Colin Beattie, promptly wrote to all donors, saying the funds “remain earmarked” for a referendum and were “woven through” the accounts.

The next year would see multiple high-profile resignations from the SNP’s officer ranks over what they claimed was a lack of transparency — including the resignation of Douglas Chapman, a member of parliament who had replaced Beattie as treasurer. Chapman said he wasn’t given enough information by the party to do his job.

For four days after Chapman quit, Sturgeon herself became interim treasurer. She would be replaced by the returning Beattie.

When did the police get involved?

Remember the name Sean Clerkin. He may just go down in history.

A serial protester whose previous claim to fame was chasing a beleaguered Scottish Labour leader into a sandwich shop, Clerkin made the initial complaint to Police Scotland about the use of donations.

After six more complaints, the police launched a formal investigation in July 2021.

Operation Branchform, as cops called it, was live.

Officers only began interviews with witnesses in 2023, after more than a year of evidence-gathering and research.

In the meantime, other details came to light which raised further questions for SNP top brass.

In December 2022, the Wings Over Scotland blog — run by a critic of the SNP under Sturgeon — revealed details of a loan the party’s then-chief executive Peter Murrell made to the SNP in 2021.

Murrell — who is Sturgeon’s husband — loaned, interest-free, £107,620 of his own cash to the SNP around six weeks after the 2021 Scottish parliament election.

Confirming the loan, which was declared late to the Electoral Commission, the SNP said it was a “personal contribution” to assist with “cashflow.” The SNP is yet to repay the loan in full.

Who has been arrested?

2023 has seen a flurry of dramatic developments in Scottish politics.

Sturgeon sent shockwaves in February when she announced her resignation as first minister and SNP leader at a hastily-arranged press conference in Edinburgh.

Citing the personal toll of the job and a desire to “free” her party — which still heads up Scotland’s devolved government — to pick its own independence strategy, Sturgeon said it had been a “privilege beyond measure” to serve.

It fired the starting pistol on a bitter race to replace her as SNP leader and first minister (Humza Yousaf won that one, by the way). But the real news was elsewhere.

On April 5 this year, Murrell — who was deposed as chief executive during the SNP’s leadership contest — was arrested in connection with the police probe.

Police Scotland confirmed they were conducting searches at a number of addresses, including Murrell and Sturgeon’s home in Glasgow and the SNP’s head office in Edinburgh.

Murrell was released without charge pending further investigation.

Just under two weeks later, Beattie — the SNP’s treasurer, remember — was arrested in connection with the investigation. He was also released without charge pending further investigation. The next day, he resigned his post as the man overseeing the SNP’s finances.

In-between those two arrests, the police also seized a luxury camper-van from outside the home of 92-year-old Margaret Murrell, Peter’s mother. It marked one of the more surreal moments of a genuinely jaw-dropping saga that has put Yousaf on the backfoot as he tries to lead the SNP through the crisis.

Then came Sturgeon’s arrest.

Police Scotland said Sunday that the former first minister had been “arrested as a suspect in connection with the ongoing investigation into the funding and finances of the Scottish National Party.” According to the force, Sturgeon was questioned by detectives after being arrested at 10:09 a.m. Sunday, and was released from custody at 5:24 p.m. without charge, “pending further investigation.”

Sturgeon said in a statement Sunday night: “Innocence is not just a presumption I am entitled to in law. I know beyond doubt that I am in fact innocent of any wrongdoing.”

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