April 7, 2023 - 1:18pm

A period of febrile speculation follows Wednesday’s arrest of former Scottish National Party chief executive, Peter Murrell — released without charge after 11 hours of questioning in a police station. Earlier today, SNP auditors resigned in response to the probe, but concern remains about the possibility that police chiefs delayed the move until after former First Minister — and Mrs Murrell — Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation and the election of a new leader in Humza Yousaf, her preferred successor.

Supporters of the former Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, only narrowly beaten into second place in spite of her fundamentalist religious beliefs, were particularly suspicious: her high vote count seemed to be at least partly formed by her stern demolition of Yousaf’s previous responsibilities for justice, transport and health. Little is now certain, except that the SNP poll numbers will continue to fall. Even Yousaf, the much-mocked “continuity candidate”, said on Thursday that the party’s governance was “not as it should be”.

Sturgeon’s prominence depended on an insistent dualism between Holyrood’s idealistic decency and Westminster’s moral decay. In her eyes, the Tory Party carried about it the “stench of sleaze”; there was “corruption at the heart of Westminster”; Boris Johnson “disgraced the office of prime minister”. The haloed-attack-dog style disguised the murmurs arising over her husband’s dealings with the SNP, with little space left between political and administrative authority as she rose to power. The disquiet over this arrangement within usually deferential nationalist ranks was summarily dismissed by the First Minister: the party chairman  had overall surveillance of the party’s finances, she said, so no problem.

It was a flimsy justification: no-one could be in any doubt where command lay. No one dared question Murrell as a result. Yousaf said it would be “a little bit daft” to dispense with the services of “a proven winner, especially in politics” — implicitly acknowledging that winning meant doubts over Murrell’s financial stewardship would be squashed. Success allowed, and screened, everything.

Murrell did resign, after supplying figures showing the party membership 30,000 above reality. It was not the worst instance of SNP malpractice. For instance, questions remain on the misuse of over £600,000, raised from party members in 2017 as a war chest for the battle for independence, which is now suspected of diversion to other uses. But this was sharply pushed aside, even after party treasurer Douglas Chapman, MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, resigned in 2021, saying he had “not received the support or financial information to carry out the fiduciary duties of national treasurer.”

Sturgeon’s departure leaves other large ignominies to be examined. Ferries under construction by Ferguson Marine on the Clyde are many years overdue and many millions over agreed prices: in 2017, one was launched in a gala ceremony even though it was only partially finished, replete with fake funnels and windows painted in to simulate completion. It was an extraordinary display of the arrogant conviction that you can fool all the of the people all of the time.

Jim McColl, the Glasgow businessman who had rescued the yard from closure, said the fake launch had been organised by the Government’s PR office — and later blasted Holyrood for negligence and cover-ups. The yard was then nationalised in 2019: ferry services are now substantially reduced, as are ten of the ageing CalMac ferry fleet awaiting repairs. The first new vessel is not expected to be finished before the end of this year.

Yet the sleaziest element in both the Salmond and Sturgeon leaderships was not so much the evasions and cover-ups. Rather, it has been their tireless insistence that independence and EU membership would usher in, after a very short adjustment period, a time of Scandinavian-style social democratic plenty for a country whose dedicated leadership embodied the best virtues of the country. As the various scandal allegations are now unpicked, it is the falsity of that prospect with which the many thousands of nationalists — if they are to remain convinced of the need for secession — will have to deal.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.