At 12:31 p.m. on Saturday, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland from 2014 to 2023 and an independence campaigner since her late teens, tweeted a picture of paperwork showing that she had passed the first stage of her driving test, at the age of fifty-two. When announcing her resignation, to widespread surprise, in February, Sturgeon said that she was in danger of burning out. She described the brutality of modern politics and the toll of leading her country through the pandemic. “It’s only very recently, I think, that I’ve started to comprehend, let alone process, the physical and mental impact of it on me,” she said. Since stepping down, a month later, Sturgeon has enjoyed some “me time”: hill-walking, catching up with friends, and learning to drive a stick shift. “If you encounter me on the roads over the next few weeks, please be gentle!” she wrote recently in the Glasgow Times.
During the same period, Sturgeon was also enveloped by a mortal political scandal. On April 5th, Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband and the former chief executive of the Scottish National Party—which she had led for eight years—was arrested by police investigating the Party’s finances. A blue “C.S.I.”-style tent was erected in the front garden of the couple’s house, in suburban Glasgow. Two weeks later, Colin Beattie, the S.N.P.’s longtime treasurer, was also detained. Sturgeon’s political identity is as a plain-speaking, supremely competent everywoman. She told reporters that she could see why some people thought that a terrible, lurking secret was the real reason for her resignation. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she insisted. “I could not have anticipated in my worst nightmares what would have unfolded over the past few weeks.” On Sunday morning, Sturgeon’s worst nightmare deepened. Just after 10 a.m., the former First Minister was summoned to a police station, arrested, and then questioned for about seven hours as part of the inquiry into the S.N.P. Like Murrell and Beattie, she was later released without charge, pending further investigation.
Scottish politics is a small bailiwick. Friendships and vendettas run long and deep. During other recent notorious episodes—such as the failed prosecution of Sturgeon’s predecessor and mentor, Alex Salmond, for attempted rape—the air ran thick with rumor and counter-rumor. But the case against Sturgeon et al. is straightforward enough. In 2017 and 2019, the S.N.P. mounted two fund-raising drives for a future independence-referendum campaign, raising a total of £666,953. (In 2014, Scottish voters chose to stay part of the United Kingdom, but, since the Brexit vote, the S.N.P., along with other pro-independence groups, has been agitating for a rerun.) The Party promised that the money would be “ring-fenced” for the cause. But by 2020, according to the S.N.P.’s accounts, the funds were largely gone—with no referendum in sight. Following complaints from bloggers and activists, the Scottish police launched Operation Branchform to investigate the possible misuse of the money. On the day that Murrell was arrested, a luxury camper van, with an estimated retail price of a hundred and ten thousand pounds, was impounded outside the home of Sturgeon’s ninety-two-year-old mother-in-law.
Financial shenanigans could not be further from Sturgeon’s political brand. When I profiled her for the magazine, in 2021, people still recalled her most recent makeover, sometime in the early two-thousands. Salmond governed Scotland with a twinkle in his eye and had a fondness for smutty jokes. On leaving office, he hosted a show on Russia Today. Sturgeon’s passion is reading. She is a political nerd—Sturgeon first ran for public office at the age of twenty-one—who successfully became normal. “Our Nicola” was a symbol, for many Scottish people, of common decency and hard work. “Even people who don’t particularly feel nationalistic trust her,” the writer Andrew O’Hagan told me in 2021. “They think she speaks well.” O’Hagan grew up in Irvine, the town where Sturgeon is from, and they lived on the same street in Glasgow when she was a young lawyer. “She invites the communion of everyday people in Scotland in a way that’s actually a gift,” he said. Sturgeon’s next Twitter post, after the celebration of her driving-test result, was a statement about her arrest. Composed as a note on her phone, it was overwritten, by Sturgeon’s standards. “To find myself in the situation I did today when I am certain I have committed no offence is both a shock and deeply distressing,” she wrote. “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.”
A common criticism of Sturgeon was that, under her leadership, the top of the S.N.P. was a closed shop. Policymaking was vague. She wasn’t nurturing an obvious successor. It wasn’t a good look that she was married to the party’s C.E.O. Murrell had worked for the S.N.P., in various roles, since 1987. Many of the Party’s senior figures have been colleagues since devolution brought fresh powers to the Scottish government, in the late nineteen-nineties. “There is, as I see it, a supreme irony in this,” James Mitchell, a professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, told me in an e-mail. “The Scottish Parliament was created in large measure to fill an accountability gap in Scottish politics . . . but this is a story about unaccountable decisions being made secretly and without adequate scrutiny inside a political party.”
In her statement, Sturgeon said that she “would never do anything to harm either the S.N.P. or the country.” But a good deal of damage has already been done. Sturgeon’s resignation triggered a divisive leadership campaign, in which Humza Yousaf, her former health secretary, was elected as a continuity candidate. Yousaf, a familiar figure to many Scottish voters, has nothing like Sturgeon’s—or Salmond’s—raw political charisma. All his attempts to assert himself as First Minister or to move on from the Sturgeon years have been drowned out in the noise of her fall. Not long before news of Sturgeon’s arrest broke, the BBC carried an interview with Yousaf in which he said that he had spoken to her recently and that the S.N.P.’s dominant figure of the last decade was in “a good place.” Last December, when Sturgeon was still in office and her resignation and arrest were not in anybody’s nightmares, polls showed the S.N.P. with about fifty per cent of the vote in Scotland. But ahead of a British general election, most likely next year, in which the S.N.P.’s forty-five seats in the House of Commons will be up for grabs, support is hovering in the mid-thirties. Nobody is talking about independence now. ♦
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