Grassroots nationalists are being led on a merry dance by the party
The ‘Yes movement’, as the Scottish separatists like to style themselves, is at war with itself again.
It is split on several axes — I have written about them before. But this time the issue is not just over independence strategy or gender politics, but the law: have the SNP illegally spent funds raised for ‘indyref two’?
That’s the question now being formally investigated by Police Scotland, acting on complaints from nationalists and the results of an initial ‘fact-finding mission’.
If you’ve missed the story, the Nationalists previously raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for a ring-fenced fighting fund for the second referendum they keep insisting is coming. Yet there is today no evidence of it in the party’s annual accounts.
The SNP have tried to deflect by claiming they don’t operate any special funds. But this isn’t true. They have also claimed that their accounts are managed on a “cash flow basis”. But to the extent that anyone can work out what this means — “that the SNP uses cash rather than accrual accounting” — it isn’t true either.
Unionists can be forgiven for not getting their hopes up that a political scandal might bring down Nicola Sturgeon or her government given their miraculous escape ahead of May’s elections.
But even if the police don’t conclude that there has been criminal misconduct, the story still tells us a lot about the state of the Nationalists.
First, their once fearsomely phalanx-like internal discipline is breaking down. One of the reasons we know about this is because SNP members (their financial officers, no less) have resigned their posts. Why? Peter Murrell, the Nationalists’ chief executive, wouldn’t give them proper access to the accounts.
Some of these, such as Joanna Cherry, will be ‘Salmondites’ and have other issues with the leadership. But not all.
Second, the SNP’s finances are in bad shape. Notwithstanding the missing indy fund, their 2019 accounts found “cash in hand and at the bank” levels at under a quarter of what they had been in 2018, and their reserves halved.
Put that together with talk of falling membership and SNP ministers starting to signal they might want the First Minister’s job, and it paints a telling picture.
Third, they don’t expect a referendum anytime soon. This might not come as a surprise to unionists — the Government has been quite firm on the question — but the realisation could come as a nasty shock to grassroots separatists who have thus far swallowed Sturgeon’s continual promises that the next battle is just around the corner.
Finally, the story highlights two levels on which the SNP’s hegemonic position has created some unhelpful blurred lines.
According to the Sunday Times, the supposedly-independent Crown Office — led by Scottish Government appointees — intervened to try and water down the police intervention. Given the suspicion of bias on the CO’s part during the Salmond scandal, this is an unwelcome reminder of the long shadow the SNP casts over ‘civic Scotland’.
And grassroots nationalists may live to regret allowing the SNP, a machine party with very mundane interests in controlling government and distributing spoils, to become a stand-in for all the hopes of the ‘Yes Movement’.