Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's former first minister and once one of Britain's most prominent politicians, was arrested Sunday by police officers investigating the finances of the Scottish National Party, which dominates country politics and which he led until his unexpected resignation in February.
The news deepens the crisis that has hit the Scottish National Party, or SNP, dealing a new blow to its campaign for Scottish independence after the arrest of Ms. Sturgeon, Peter Murrell, former chief executive of the party, and then Colin Beattieits former treasurer, in April.
The two men were released after questioning and without any charge of offence. In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, Police Scotland said that Ms. Sturgeon had also been “released without charge pending further investigation” and, soon after the announcement, the former first minister proclaimed him innocent.
“To find myself in the situation I found myself in today when I was sure I had not committed a foul is both shocking and deeply distressing,” Ms. Sturgeon wrote on Twitter. “Innocence is not just a presumption that I am entitled to in law. I know without a doubt that I am actually innocent of any wrongdoing.”
The latest development is a dramatic fall from grace for Ms. Sturgeon, a popular politician who served as Scotland's first minister for more than eight years until he announced he was stepping down.
Recent events have clouded not only over the SNP, whose poll ratings have fallen after the party's funding crunch escalated, but also over its goal of achieving independence for Scotland.
The prospect of an imminent new vote to secede from Britain had ebbed before Ms. Sturgeon resigned, but the investigation into the party was a significant setback for pro-independence forces. Opinion polls show that the Scottish public is widely divided on this issue. A clear and consistent majority to end the centuries-old union with Britain has yet to emerge.
In February, the resignation of Ms. Sturgeon shocked the political world and prompted a divisive race to succeed him that was ultimately won by Humza Yousaf, formerly Scotland's health minister.
However, Mr Yousaf's attempts to establish himself as the country's first minister have been overshadowed by the recent escalation of police investigations into SNP finances.
In line with standard British protocol, Ms. Sturgeon was not named Sunday in a statement from Police Scotland. The first said that “a 52-year-old woman” had been “arrested as a suspect in connection with continued investigations into Scottish National Party funding and finances,” adding that she was “in custody and being questioned” by detectives.
Scottish Police can arrest a person if they think that person may have committed a crime and if they wish to formally question the person. The person may then be released while the investigation continues as to whether there is sufficient evidence to press charges.
A statement issued on behalf of the former first minister said: “Nicola Sturgeon today, Sunday 11th June, on arrangement with Police Scotland, attended an interview in which he will be arrested and questioned in connection with Operation Branchform. Nicola has consistently said he will cooperate with investigations if asked and continues to do so.”
Operation Branchform, the code name for the Police Scotland investigation, started in 2021 and is reported to have followed complaints about the handling of around 600,000 pounds, or about $750,000, in donations raised to campaign for a second vote for Scottish independence. (The first referendum on the question was held in 2014, with Scots voting 55 per cent to 45 per cent against independence.)
Authorities are thought to be investigating whether the money was meant to fight for another independence vote diverted to a different purposeand to investigate why Mr. Murrell gave loans to the party.
Mr Murrell, who has been married to Ms Sturgeon since 2010, served as chief executive from 1999 until March, when he stepped down after receiving misinformation from the party about the size of dues-paying membership. Mr Beattie resigned following his arrest in April.
After the arrest of Mr. Murrell, a British news outlet, reported that police had seized a luxury motorhome parked outside his mother's home. Mr Yousaf confirmed to journalists that the party had purchased the vehicle – to be used as a mobile office for the campaign, officials told the local news agency – but said he only knew about the purchase. after he became the leader.
In a BBC interview broadcast on Sunday before news of the arrests, Yousaf declined to comment on the police investigation. But stressed on the impact of the crisis, he said supporters “should be absolutely sure that, despite the most difficult few weeks that our party may be facing, certainly in the modern era, that support for independence is still very strong.”
Asked if Ms Sturgeon was okay, Yousaf replied that “she is in a good place and definitely doing well,” adding that he had spoken to her for advice from “arguably one of the nicest politicians” Europe has ever seen in last decade.
When Mr Yousaf won the party leadership, he was seen as a successor candidate who would retain most of his predecessor's policies. At that time, and given Ms. Sturgeon, it was an advantage in a race he won narrowly.
But as the financing crunch escalated, all that changed. Mr Yousaf has struggled to emulate his predecessor's dominant political profile. The SNP's problems have boosted the opposition Labor Party, which is hoping to gain an advantage in Scotland in the next general election expected in the second half of 2024.
Ms Sturgeon became party leader and first minister in 2014 following the resignation of her mentor Alex Salmond, with whom she later fell out in spectacular fashion.
A member of the SNP since the age of 16, Ms. Sturgeon is known as one of the UK's most effective communicators and is seen as a steadfast leader during the coronavirus pandemic. While leading the Scottish government, which is a force of its own, he defeated four British prime ministers as he pushed for independence.
Reaching that goal ultimately proved to be beyond him. For a referendum to be legally binding, it needs approval from the government in London. Successive British prime ministers have refused to agree to another vote, arguing that a vote held in 2014 solved a generational problem. Labor has said it will not change policy if it wants to win the next general election.
At the time of her resignation, Ms. Sturgeon explained his decision by saying he was exhausted and had become too polarized a figure in Scottish politics to persuade faltering voters in favor of independence.
When asked by the BBC in April whether the police investigation into Mr. Murrell has pushed for Ms. Sturgeon, Mr. Yousaf replied: “No, I believe Nicola Sturgeon really does that he has taken the party as far as it will go.”