Before the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, David Henry’s interest in politics rarely went beyond watching it on television.
But the campaign, despite failing 45-55 per cent, wowed the executive of the London-based television production company and became an activist in the Scottish National Party.
“I joined the SNP one day after the referendum in 2014,” said the 58-year-old who grew up in Edinburgh. “It was an incredible time . . . I found it very exhilarating.”
I was not alone. Tens of thousands of people joined the party after the vote, transforming it into a political giant with more than 125,000 members at its peak.
But Henry was among seven supporters who complained to the party and then in 2021 to the police about the lack of transparency about the money they SNPs He had proposed fighting for a second independence referendum. The move would trigger a police investigation and the scandal has sparked riots that threaten the dominance of the party, which has been in power in Scotland for 16 years.
The SNP’s old divisions over strategy and governance exploded openly this year during a bitter contest to replace nicola sturgeon as leader, and the turmoil deepened last month when police investigating the party’s finances arrested both its former chief executive and treasurer. The allegations have left Sturgeon’s successor, Humza Yousaf, struggling to restore unity and fend off Scottish Labour.
The seeds of the crisis go back to 2017, when Sturgeon demanded that Downing Street grant Scotland the right to hold a second referendum, and the party later launched a campaign fundraising campaign. By the end of 2021, the SNP said the campaign and another referendum-related appeal had raised more than £740,000.
Yet six years after the launch, Scotland is no closer to holding another referendum after UK prime ministers refused to allow it and the High Court ruled last year that Sturgeon did not have the legal authority to hold a vote. unilaterally.
Former supporters, including Henry, who contributed to the fundraiser, said they went to the police after being dissatisfied with the party’s response. They have accused the party of diverting the money to other things, instead of allocating it as promised to a pro-independence campaign.
The money does not appear as a separate item in the financial accounts that the SNP presents to the Electoral Commission. Members began raising questions when the SNP’s 2019 filings showed it had less than £100,000 in “cash and cash equivalents”, but separately said the independence appeal had raised £600,000.
The party has said that the proceeds from fundraisers were included “and reconciled to” the total donations raised between 2017 and 2021.
Figures filed with the electoral body showed that annual donations more than tripled in 2017 to £1.4m. An additional £324,000 was raised in 2018 and £905,000 in 2019.
The latest available accounts, for 2021, show the party holding around £145,000 in cash and cash equivalents, raising further questions about the whereabouts of the independence referendum campaign funds.
In its 2020 and 2021 accounts, the SNP acknowledged growing concerns about the lack of separate accounting for referendum funds. But he also argued that being “an independence party” every penny he spent, “directly or indirectly”, went to support the cause. He assured members that the money would be used to ensure independence.
Critics such as Trish Spencer, a former party member who said she donated at least £25 towards the referendum appeal, said this was untrue because taxpayers believed the money would be set aside and used only to fight an independence campaign.
Furthermore, they argued that since the money was raised from supporters of independence, and not just from SNP members or voters, it would have been wrong to spend the proceeds elsewhere.
Spencer, who is not among those who complained to police, said she got her money back after she objected. The 61-year-old retired nurse from North Lanarkshire said the SNP was, at the most charitable, guilty of “moving the goal posts”.
“I donated because they were specific in saying it was for a referendum campaign,” he said. “At the very least, they should have gone back and told people if they were diverting the money to other things.”
The SNP accounts do not shed much light on what the “referendum” money was spent on, and the dispute with the complainants over how literally the claim that it would be spent on a referendum campaign should be taken.
The 2020 accounts showed the SNP spent almost £700,000 on office furniture, computers and other equipment. This amount surprised critics, including the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland.
The site, a staunch critic of Sturgeon, was the first, in 2022, to report on a £107,620 loan made to the SNP in 2021 by Peter Murrell, the party’s former chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband.
News of the loan, which went unreported to election authorities for more than a year, intensified public concern about the running of a party by a small group of people close to Sturgeon and her husband.
In the 2021 accounts, released last year, SNP auditors Johnston Carmichael said they had assessed two areas, related-party transactions and manual journal entries, as having “higher fraud risk.” But there was no further explanation, and no suggestion that any evidence of fraud was detected.
The company declined to comment on its audit. Revelations last month that Johnston Carmichael had stopped working with the party around October last year added to the sense of crisis over the SNP’s finances.
Murrell was at the center of controversy surrounding membership numbers and perceived bias during the bitter succession campaign sparked by Sturgeon’s announcement in February that he would resign. He resigned as chief executive in March after the party admitted it had about 30,000 fewer members than he had claimed at the start of the leadership race.
Then, in April, Murrell was arrested as part of the police investigation into the party’s finances. Colin Beattie, then treasurer, was arrested at the end of the month. Both men were released without charge pending further investigation. Police Scotland declined to comment on the investigation.
Caroline McAllister, a former member of the SNP’s national executive committee, said the controversy raised broader concerns about the functioning of Scotland’s ruling party.
“I know of people who contributed to the fund who were not members of the SNP,” McAllister said. “This is a government party and they are taking money from the people and saying it is for a referendum, but then they use it to prop up the party. That is not acceptable.”
The SNP said it had been “fully cooperating” with the police. “However, it is not appropriate to publicly address these issues while the investigation is ongoing,” he added.
The impact is beginning to be felt in the polls. In an Ipsos poll published on Wednesday, Scotland’s support for the SNP in a UK parliamentary election in Westminster fell 10 percentage points to 41 percent compared with six months ago. Henry, meanwhile, resigned from the SNP and joined the breakaway Alba party.
Additional information from Mure Dickie