I haven’t written about the events engulfing the SNP recently: the police search of the home Nicola Sturgeon shares with her husband Peter Murrell, the arrest and release without charge of Murrell and the party Treasurer Colin Beattie. I have been reserving judgement until we know more about what is going on. But when will that be?
Scotland’s contempt of court rules are extremely strict – some might say draconian. In the US, people are told the substance of the allegations against political figures such as Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who have both recently undergone searches of their homes by FBI agents.
But in Scotland, very little information is given to the press. The idea behind this official silence is to prevent contamination of the jury in any future trial – but in place of words, we have pictures and pictures that have led to very damaging speculation and reporting.
There has been a lot of misreporting. Many people believe – because they heard it on the news or read it in the papers – that the police dug up Nicola Sturgeon’s garden. I heard some London hack who knows less about this than I do assert that this had happened on the newspapers round-up on the BBC. It is false – they didn’t dig up the garden.
Even the FT – the UK’s most reliable paper – in a piece yesterday bylined ‘the editorial board’ said there was ‘a forensics tent’ in Nicola Sturgeon’s garden. What? This is not an episode of CSI. It was just a tent, probably put up to create a dry area to move items into a police car, and perhaps to prevent photographers with long lenses getting shots of documents.
The motorhome that was confiscated has led to a sort of Ealing comedy narrative suggesting that Peter Murrell had some kind of escape plan – a downmarket version of Michelle Mone’s yacht. Jokey memes circulating on social media include “The Murrell Collection” – banknotes and caravans.
But I can’t actually see how buying a motorhome with money which was donated by SNP supporters for campaigning in a referendum could be a criminal offence. The party and its supporters believed at the time that another referendum might be around the corner. Scotland’s independence movement has a history of campaigning on the road – there were bus tours in 2014 and 1997.
A motorhome could be a valuable addition to the fleet. It could provide accommodation and toilet facilities for a few folk, and perhaps some privacy for strategy meetings. It could be an alternative to finding a hotel bar to debrief at the end of the day – where journalists might be earwigging. Even just somewhere to eat pot noodles out of the wind after a long day chapping on doors in some one-horse town could be useful. But whether or not you think it was a good idea or a waste of money, it is clearly a defensible decision.
There seem to be many disgruntled SNP insiders briefing against the Murrell faction. The SNP actually split during the Alex Salmond trial – that was a painful period for the party. But the extent of the split was disguised at the time by the discipline and the “wheesht for indy” mantra. The circle of trust at the heart of the party just got smaller and smaller. It shrank further over the gender reform act and the scandal of Isla Bryson being sent for assessment to a women’s prison. After Nicola stepped down and the prospect of an independence referendum receded, the internal disagreements have all come out into the open, as different factions jostle for position.
Reporting of these political disagreements is legitimate and interesting of course. But the trial by the UK’s increasingly lurid media of Nicola Sturgeon and the others is another thing completely.
The front page of the Times the other day proclaimed “Party braced for Sturgeon arrest”. That hasn’t happened yet and it may never. Sturgeon is clearly a dedicated public servant and a careful lawyer. I don’t believe she has knowingly committed any offence, especially a financial one.
There may be charges forthcoming against Murrell and Beattie. These may be serious or minor charges relating to their formal obligations. History may judge the police search and arrests to be over the top – or justified. We don’t know yet. But I think the interests of justice would be best served by a speedy decision from the Procurator Fiscal on this.
At the very least, the Fiscal’s office should be issuing a bit more information about what they are doing and why. Authoritative statements such as “we did not dig up the garden” might at least put to bed some of the misinformation we have seen so much of recently.
First published on the author’s Substack A Letter from Scotland