Two years on and Operation Branchform rolls on surrounded by Scotland’s typical veil of secrecy

Nicola Sturgeon was arrested during Operation Branchform but released without charge pending further inquiries
Nicola Sturgeon was arrested during Operation Branchform but released without charge pending further inquiries - Andrew Milligan/pa

Reports that the police are investigating the purchase of a top-of-the-range Jaguar  are the latest astonishing development in their two-and-a-half-year inquiry into the SNP’s finances – a development that continues to cast a giant shadow over Scotland’s political and public life.

The car is alleged to have been bought in 2019 by Peter Murrell, the party’s ex-chief executive and the husband of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, from a dealership in Edinburgh.

It is now reported to be part of Operation Branchform, Scotland’s biggest ever police operation which would seem to have a straightforward objective - to find out what happened to the £666,953 that had been donated to the SNP by members but which allegedly simply disappeared.

Nicola Sturgeon, Mr Murrell and Colin Beattie, the former party treasurer, have been arrested but released pending further inquiries.

No charges have been laid against anyone but almost from the start, the atmosphere in official, political and legal Scottish circles has been bedevilled by claim and counterclaim, many of them politically motivated, about where the money went.

Left in the dark

Neither Police Scotland, nor the Crown Office, the country’s main prosecution authority, nor Dorothy Bain, the Lord Advocate,  Scotland’s principal law officer, have offered the public even a scintilla of guidance about what’s going on. Or what isn’t.

Nobody really expects a running commentary on what appears to be a highly complex investigation. But, as is often the case in Scotland, a total veil of secrecy has been thrown over the matter.

Ms Bain has recused herself from the investigation, but numerous critics have called into question the fact that lord advocates are also members of the Scottish Government.

The money had been handed over to fight another independence referendum. But that vote hasn’t happened; it was unlikely to take place, given that it would have been unlawful without UK approval as the Supreme Court has ruled.

But when questions were asked about where their money had gone, senior party figures were waved aside by Ms Sturgeon, who assured them that “the finances are absolutely fine”.

Shortly after, Police Scotland announced the start of an investigation into the missing money. But telling the public they’d started an investigation is just about as much they have allowed us to know.

Sir Iain Livingstone, the former chief constable, retired in July, by which time many senior observers reckoned a final decision on charges would have to have been reached.

Jo Farrell has duly succeeded Sir Iain as chief constable but, thus far, has had nothing to say about Branchform.

With only three weeks to go before the new year and with the Christmas holidays approaching, that doesn’t leave very much time now does it? But then every other supposed deadline has come and gone, and still Branchform rolls on.

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