The arrest of Nicola Sturgeon in connection with the ongoing police investigation into £600,000 in missing donations to the Scottish National Party ought not to be surprising. The former first minister has since been released without charge, but it marks a sorry development in the SNP’s apparently never-ending sleaze saga.
In April, Police Scotland erected an evidence tent in front of the former first minister’s house and started digging in her garden. Peter Murrell, her husband and chief executive of the SNP for more than two decades, was arrested and held for questioning for almost 12 hours.
The events of Sunday afternoon were thus, surely, inevitable. Yet even to the most jaded Nationalist-watcher, it’s still a shocking moment.
Perhaps it’s just because Sturgeon flew so high for so long. When things were good, the concentration of so much authority in the hands of husband and wife allowed Sturgeon to impose a formidable discipline on the SNP.
Even when they came under pressure during the fallout from the Scottish Government’s woeful mishandling of sexual abuse allegations against Alex Salmond, Sturgeon and Murrell managed to wriggle away from awkward questions about what she knew and when.
Yet it is one thing to maintain an implausible fiction about Chinese walls in the face of a divided panel of grandstanding MSPs, and quite another to do so against a formal investigation from the police, the Crown Office, and the National Crime Agency.
Even if people were minded to believe that a party chief executive wouldn’t keep the leader informed about the state of internal finances, the idea he would not have explained (or even mentioned) a six-figure personal loan to the party was always absurd.
Beyond speculation, we have isolated facts — the loan, the arrests, the earlier resignations from the SNP finance committee, the seizure of a luxury campervan from outside the home of Sturgeon’s mother-in-law — but not the story.
It may well be that there is yet a perfectly (or at least, legally) innocent explanation for why hundreds of thousands of pounds raised for a ring-fenced independence fighting fund is not in the SNP’s accounts. But the political fallout has already started. Humza Yousaf, who touted himself during the leadership election as the heir to Sturgeon, now has to watch as both her credibility and Murrell’s party machine disintegrate beneath him.
Meanwhile followers of Kate Forbes, whom Yousaf defeated narrowly, can only grow angrier that had this occurred during the campaign, she would almost certainly have prevailed.
The scandal inevitably means that Sturgeon herself will emerge a diminished figure. This matters because she remains a politician of rare ability, and in the event of a second referendum might otherwise have been a major asset to the separatist cause.
Unionists can’t rest on their laurels, of course: the hard work of winning round those Scots whose hearts swung behind independence in 2014 needs still to be done. But the SNP’s extraordinary rise was built on the talents and energies of two people: Salmond and Sturgeon. Their successive topplings cannot help but make that work a little easier.